After six-and-a-half hours of public comment, the commission voted 3-1 to permit the two companies to expand their driverless car operations, enabling them to charge passengers for driverless rides without a human safety driver present, at all hours.
- Alice Reynolds, commission president, who voted in favor: “We must base our decision on data and evidence, and on the proper scope of our authority…. This is part of an ongoing process of oversight and testing of a new technology.”
Though Waymo and Cruise cars have been cruising the city’s streets for years, each company currently runs no more than 300 robotaxis at a time and charges fares only at certain times of day and under certain other circumstances. With Thursday’s vote to expand services, the companies can increasingly compete with other ride-hailing services. The commission is expected to get an update in November on the companies’ expansions. Last month, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt suggested the company could ramp up its operations to compete against the 10,000 gig drivers in San Francisco.
The tech-centric city and nearby Silicon Valley are often used as laboratories for companies to test cutting edge services that eventually go national (think Uber and DoorDash). The expansion of autonomous vehicle fleets by Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and General Motors’ Cruise would reverberate beyond the Bay Area, including the future of delivery and truck drivers statewide.
The arguments for and against robotaxis centered around three core issues:
Public safety: In 2021, an average of nearly 12 people died every day in California from vehicle collisions. In defense of self-driving cars, a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an orthopedic surgeon and bicycling enthusiasts argued that roads will be safer as human error-led accidents will decrease. Recalling incidents of harassment and discrimination, women and LGBTQ+ community members also pointed out the personal safety benefits of driverless cars.
But San Francisco’s fire and police departments, as well as the city’s public transit agency, have documented numerous instances of autonomous vehicles blocking traffic lanes, rolling over fire hoses and stalling emergency vehicles — even during a recent mass shooting. Several residents at the hearing told anecdotes of near (and not-so-near) misses and pets being run over by robotaxis. Genevieve Shiroma, the lone dissenter on the commission, wanted to delay a decision for more study on safety.
Disability and accessibility: Members of the disabled community have been divided. At Thursday’s hearing, people with autism, vision impairments and service animals said that the technology grants them more freedom.
- Lana Nieves, Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco executive director: “Autonomous vehicle technology represents a future with greater independence, the ability to go where we want to go, when we want to go, and to do so on our own without having to get into a car with a complete stranger.”
But one woman with mobility issues recalled how a driver helped her get in and out of her wheelchair at the airport, and asked how a robotaxi could do the same. Another raised concerns about the lack of accessibility for elderly passengers not familiar with the technology.
Economy and inequality: At times, the hearing put the very soul of San Francisco on trial. Asking commissioners to reject fear and embrace innovation, SEIU Local 87 union members, software engineers, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and others argued that driverless cars would create more jobs and revitalize the struggling city.
But other union members, cab drivers and long-time residents asserted that allowing yet more multi-billion dollar companies to unleash their technology unchecked would irreparably change the city’s character, take away jobs, increase economic disparities and make the city even more unaffordable.
- Michael Martinez, a speaker: “The city is going to be pimped out by yet another couple of large tech companies so that all their employees here today… might get to cash out their stock options…. And now you are about to make a decision as to whether or not you’re going to let them run ramshod?… You guys aren’t stupid. Don’t be stupid.”