San Jose, Oakland closely watching as service grows
Driverless, traffic-clogging robot taxis, which have only recently begun transporting paying passengers in San Francisco, are expected to spread to other Bay Area cities, whether local officials and residents want them or not.
On Aug. 10, just one day after state regulators approved Cruise and Waymo to begin taking paid fares with self-driving vehicles and no onboard human backup, nearly a dozen robotaxis abruptly stopped and clogged traffic in the city’s North Beach neighborhood.
A few days later, as San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin sat at a sidewalk table near the North Beach snarl, a Cruise car behind him began a left turn onto busy, four-lane Columbus Avenue, then abruptly veered right to continue straight up Vallejo Street. Peskin turned to watch as the driverless car came to a stop 15 feet behind the Grant Avenue stop line, paused for a few seconds, then blew through the stop sign as it turned left.
“To borrow the words of our fire chief,” Peskin said, “they’re not ready for prime time.”
Advocates claim that robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles will alleviate the escalating carnage on America’s roads. However, officials, technology experts, and citizens are concerned that the vehicles, which are notorious for obstructing emergency vehicles and bottlenecking traffic, could delay an ambulance long enough to kill a patient, or impede emergency responders and trap fleeing people in the event of an earthquake, fire, or other disaster.
“It’s a recipe for death,” Peskin declared.
On Thursday night in San Francisco, a Cruise robotaxi collided with a fire truck while responding to an emergency, sending one of the passengers to the hospital. The city’s fire chief told Peskin that the truck, with lights and sirens blaring, was “creeping” into the intersection when the robotaxi, which was on a green light, collided with it.
The Department of Motor Vehicles announced on Friday that it was investigating “recent concerning incidents” involving Cruise robotaxis in San Francisco and asked the company to cut the number of operating vehicles in half until the investigation was completed. The agency stated that it has the authority to revoke Cruise’s operating permits. Cruise stated that it has complied and will cooperate with the DMV.
It makes little difference in California whether city and emergency officials oppose driverless taxis on their streets. The state, which has accepted them, has authority. The DMV has granted permission for several companies to test autonomous vehicles on public roads, and the Public Utilities Commission recently approved the expansion of GM’s Cruise and Google spinoff Waymo. In San Francisco, Cruise has up to 300 robotaxis, while Waymo has around 100.
Cruise and Waymo declined to comment on whether they intend to deploy additional robotaxis in the Bay Area. Cruise stated that making roads safer was a “urgent mission” for the company, claiming that its first million driver-less miles resulted in 54% fewer collisions when compared to human drivers. However, “this comparison is not easy to make… (because) there is relatively little data available to measure human driving performance,” according to Cruise’s own report. Waymo claims that its cars interact with emergency vehicles hundreds of times per day, with the “vast majority” of the time going smoothly.
San Jose officials are keeping a close eye on the technology but have little influence over its implementation. “Building relationships with these companies is the best we can do right now, hoping that they engage with us in a positive way,” said Colin Heyne, a spokesman for San Jose transportation.
Good luck with that, said Peskin. According to him, San Francisco has sought “a collaborative relationship directly with the companies,” but “they have not been reciprocal in that desire.”
In a letter to the utilities commission last year, Oakland officials stated that the city “may be next” for robotaxi expansion. Oakland officials have been “closely following the events in San Francisco,” but there is no official position on robotaxi deployment, according to transportation director Fred Kelley. The letter to the commission expressed concerns about the vehicles’ ability to follow traffic laws. According to the letter, police have no authority to cite the cars for violating traffic laws.
San Francisco filed motions with the regulator on Wednesday, requesting that the robotaxi expansion be halted due to interference with emergency responders, transit, construction work, and traffic flow. According to the motions, the technical issues that are causing problems have not been resolved and will likely worsen as the companies expand. The commission stated that it was considering the motions.
When the commission announced the expansion, commissioner John Reynolds, who previously worked as a lawyer for Cruise before joining the agency last year, stated that he and his colleagues “do not yet have the data to judge (robotaxis) against the standard human drivers are setting.” However, he believes the technology has the potential to improve road safety, and that businesses and first responders must work together to address any issues that arise.
Others have had their fill of the current crop of vehicles. Peskin and San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson have both stated that robotaxis pose a serious threat to public safety in their current form, and that their numerous mishaps — one recently drove around city street construction cones and became stuck in freshly poured concrete — foreshadow tragedy. “It doesn’t matter if these things are better than human drivers 90% of the time if the other 10% of the time they’re catastrophically bad,” Peskin said.
According to Nicholson, city police, and transit officials, robotaxis, the majority of which are from Cruise, have made nearly 600 documented unexpected stops since June 2022, which is “likely a fraction of actual incidents.”
According to Peskin, the vehicles have interfered with emergency responders more than 60 times. According to city reports, incidents in the last two weeks have included a robotaxi cutting directly in front of a fire truck on its way to a call, a stopped robotaxi forcing a fire truck to drive over construction cones, and a robotaxi halting diagonally across a narrow street and blocking a fire truck.
Greg Giachino, a tech worker, discovered the cluster of ten Cruise robotaxis in North Beach stopped for at least 15 minutes on Aug. 11. “Human drivers are terrible. “However, a human driver can avoid a fire truck,” he explained.
According to Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Phil Koopman, who studies the technology, robotaxi companies have persuaded officials that their software drives better than humans. “We’re finding out that’s not really true,” Koopman explained.
Because the companies operate in secrecy, the reasons for their cars going haywire are unknown, according to Koopman. According to Koopman, the North Beach blockage highlights the dangers of stalled robotaxis during a disaster.
“The next earthquake, you’re going to find every single Cruise vehicle in the middle of the road, blocking stuff,” he predicted. “That’s exactly what you should expect.”
Clara Grimmelbein, a 19-year-old University of Virginia computer science major, was sitting at a sidewalk cafe with her parents in San Francisco last week when a robotaxi drove by. Grimmelbein expressed her desire to ride in one. “It’s new and exciting,” she commented. “I put more trust in machines than I do in people.”
A block away, poet Marvin Hiemstra, 84, a city resident since 1967, bemoaned the presence of the vehicles. “I don’t see any benefit to anyone, except maybe a handful of companies,” he said.