San Francisco moves to center of robotaxis universe after California agency votes

A Cruze self-driving car owned by General Motors Corp is seen outside the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, where it conducts most of its testing, in California, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Heather Somerville/File Photo

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 10 (Reuters) – California has supercharged the self-driving car industry.

Following a controversial state agency vote, Alphabet Inc’s ( GOOGL.O ) Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise are allowed to take paying passengers around San Francisco day and night, cementing the tech hub as a hub for the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry. This represents a significant advance for the new technology.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday sided with the companies in the face of fierce opposition from some residents and city agencies. Commissioners heard more than six hours of public comment from residents and special interest groups who supported or opposed the move to expand toll autonomous vehicle service.

Transportation and safety agencies, police and fire departments, and many residents opposed the expansion of paid robotaxi service. Agencies with no regulatory authority force test vehicles to more measured emissions.

Technologists and residents in favor of the expansion saw cars as providing a safer alternative to human drivers and a major boost to San Francisco’s economy.

Companies have now received permission to operate city-wide paid taxi services at all hours of the day, and have said they plan to park more cars as a result. Collectively they have more than 500 autonomous vehicles already in operation.

Before approving the expansion, Commissioner John Reynolds addressed some of the public’s concerns. “Although we don’t yet have the data to rate AVs against standards set by humans, I believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the road.”

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Cruise and Waymo operate trial services within San Francisco limited by times and geographic areas. Neither on Thursday indicated how soon they might move to implement 24-hour taxi service, but promised to do so soon in promotional emails after the vote.

The move is an important step in regulating robot cars, which Waymo, Cruze and others have formally rolled out in cities and states across the country.

The approval “signals the true launch of our business operations in San Francisco,” Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said in a prepared statement. This “puts Cruise in a position to compete with traditional ridehail, and challenge the status quo of unsafe, inaccessible transportation,” Prashanthi Raman, Cruise vice president of global government affairs, said in an emailed statement.

San Francisco is also important as a symbolic center for the technology and the largest test lab for experimental cars, with hundreds of AVs already in operation. Real-world testing in dense urban environments is necessary to perfect the technology, the companies said.

Waymo will be allowed to drive at speeds up to 65 miles per hour and in inclement weather, while Cruze will be limited to 35 miles per hour and will not be allowed to drive when weather does not permit, the commission said Thursday.

Companies that have applied with the commission for permission to expand taxi service have said their vehicles are safer than distracted human drivers and have yet to cause a life-threatening injury or death.

Cruise and Waymo now offer app-hailed rides in direct competition with local companies Uber and LYFT ( LYFT.O ).

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Vehicles with empty driver’s seats and steering wheels turning on their own have become a common sight around San Francisco. Locals often post their driving hiccups on social media.

The robotaxi project has divided San Francisco among locals. Injuries.

Citing issues such as disability access, safety, software coding, union activism and conflicts, hundreds of residents and members of various interest groups filed comments on both sides of the issue in one-minute increments at the commission’s San Francisco hearing room. Of interest, among many concerns.

The commission heard testimony from the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency that it has recorded about 600 incidents involving autonomous vehicles since spring 2022, which they believe is “a fraction” of the total due to what they say are lax reporting requirements.

Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma argued for a late vote, citing public opinion and her lingering concerns following evidence that vehicles were obstructing emergency vehicles in San Francisco. She was the lone “no” vote.

“All it takes is one real-life example of a driverless autonomous vehicle that prevents a first responder from doing its job in real-time to convince me that we shouldn’t be approving city-wide deployment,” he said.

Tech experts and other residents who have supported the wider rollout of autonomous vehicles said they fear a “no” vote could derail a local industry that brings jobs and attention to a city.

Reporting by Greg Benzinger; Editing by Jamie Freed and Diane Croft

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Greg Benzinger joined Reuters in 2022 as a technology reporter focusing on the world’s largest technology companies. He was previously a member of The New York Times editorial board and a technology beat reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He has written about the auto and telecommunications industries for Bloomberg News. He studied English literature at the University of Virginia and graduate journalism at Columbia University. Greg lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.

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