California regulators voted last week to allow self-driving car companies Waymo and Cruise to offer 24/7 paid taxi service in San Francisco, a major win for the industry that could pave the way for more widespread adoption of the technology.
Cars without drivers have become a common sight on San Francisco’s winding, hilly and often foggy streets. Thursday’s vote stripped most limitations on operating and charging for rides, essentially creating more ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft – just without the drivers.
It’s a pivotal moment for the autonomous transportation industry, expanding one of the biggest test cases for a world in which many companies envision not needing drivers at all.
For years, companies from Amazon to Google have experimented with self-driving vehicles, something that could prove incredibly disruptive to the labour economy if it ever materialises en masse.
In California alone, there are more than 40 companies – ranging from young start-ups to tech giants – that have permits to test their cars in San Francisco, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. According to a Washington Post analysis of the data, the companies collectively clock millions of miles on public roads every year – along with hundreds of mostly minor accidents.
California often serves as a “canary in the coal mine for the country and the developed world,” said David Zipper, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. “We’re talking about monumental impacts on how our streets work, environmental emissions, on sprawl, on equity. The potential impacts just can’t be overstated.”
The California Public Utilities Commission approved the permits for Waymo and Cruise on Thursday despite pushback from local leaders and many residents in San Francisco, who argue that the autonomous vehicles have caused chaos around the city – from traffic jams to disrupted emergency scenes.
“I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” said Commissioner John Reynolds, who is also a former managing counsel at Cruise. “Today is the first of many steps in bringing (autonomous vehicle) transportation services to Californians, and setting a successful and transparent model for other states to follow.”
Google sister company Waymo and Cruise are the largest companies testing in the state by far, with hundreds of cars on the road in San Francisco at any given time. But there are other well-known names in the race, too: Apple, which has largely kept quiet on its self-driving car operation – internally dubbed Project Titan – had about 50 cars testing on public roads, according to 2022 data. Amazon’s Zoox has about 100 cars. A hodgepodge of largely start-ups comprise the rest.
Despite the fervor around the industry, many experts caution that a more widespread Jetsons-like future is still probably years away.
Already, companies like Uber and Tesla had predicted that they would be widespread by the mid-2020s, but the technology has failed to deliver. And while more than 40 companies have permits to test their technology in California, many still must have at least one human being supervising the driving. Several companies don’t appear to be actively testing the technology at all.
As part of the conditions of operation in California, the companies are required to report certain information, such as mileage and collisions, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the CPUC.
But critics say this data is unreliable and incomplete because the companies are not required to report a range of other incidents that affect the public – such as when a car veers into a bike or bus lane or stops short and disrupts traffic.
According to the data analysed by The Post, there have been at least 236 collisions reported by companies with cars operating in fully autonomous mode in California since 2019 – most relatively minor.
That does not include the many other examples of issues the cars have run into when they were operating in manual mode, or after the autonomous car was taken over by a human driver. The vast majority of collision reports are from Waymo and Cruise.
In statements, both Waymo and Cruise have stood by their safety records – saying their technology will ultimately lead to safer streets.
“Last year pedestrian deaths in the United States reached their highest levels in 40 years, often due to preventable human error, and the public deserves to know that there’s a promising emerging technology that could help improve road safety,” Hannah Lindow, a spokeswoman for Cruise, said in a statement.
But in San Francisco, city officials say they are fed up with being a guinea pig for the industry.
In an attempt to halt Thursday’s vote, they wrote letters and spoke at hearings to bring attention to a string of incidents in recent months: A car rolling into the scene of a mass shooting, another getting tangled in caution tape and downed wires after a major storm and another blocking a firetruck from exiting a station for several minutes.
“I know this is the way the tech is going, and this is the way the industry is going, and that’s fine,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson previously told The Post. “But don’t shove it down our throats.”
There was also a more organic protest movement that stemmed from residents. In videos that went viral on Twitter, a group of people found that placing traffic cones on the nose of the vehicles disables them and causes them to stall.
Their goal: to highlight how easy it is to confuse the technology, and also pressure state regulators to halt the expansion of these cars on San Francisco’s streets.
For Koopman, the Carnegie Mellon professor, Thursday’s decision was a discouraging sign of what’s to come for the industry.
“The regulators have been letting these guys do whatever they want thus far,” he said. “This yes vote means that if you create chaos on San Francisco’s streets, then there are no real consequences.”