Are Robot Taxis Coming to San Francisco?

San Francisco may be the emblem of the digital industry and the centre of next-generation services like artificial intelligence, but city officials are determined not to let this progress too quickly.

Later this week, a state agency will decide whether to allow Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O) Waymo and General Motors' Cruise to expand their for-pay, no-safety-driver services to all of San Francisco, day and night.

The decision, which has already been postponed twice, will serve as an early test of how to manage the young business in the face of opposition from safety advocates and mounting urgency from engineers.

Cruise is limited to the northwest third of the city for paid rides, whereas Waymo cannot yet charge for rides at all. In San Francisco's downtown financial area, neither is permitted to transport passengers.

Leaders of the city's transportation agencies, fire department, and planning department are all opposed to the rapid development, claiming the vehicles are a hazard, clogging traffic, disrupting emergency services, and driving erratically. According to the corporations, unmanned vehicles are safer than human-driven autos. Both parties claim to have statistics to back up their statements.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, for example, provided data in June estimating that Waymo and Cruise vehicles were engaged in incidents with injuries reported at a rate higher than the national average for human-driven vehicles. State regulators disagree, claiming that the data does not account for events in which human drivers were at fault.

In some parts of San Francisco, futuristic test vehicles like Cruise and Waymo are common. The vehicles, which are adorned with revolving sensors on their roofs and bumpers, routinely draw gawking tourists who are mesmerised by their vacant driver seats and hands-free spinning steering wheels. They have also attracted notice for their often unpredictable driving tendencies, which include strict adherence to posted speed limits, meandering routes, and a proclivity to halt completely when presented with unforeseen obstructions.

Cruise and Waymo both claimed to have driven 3 million and 1 million miles without suffering any life-threatening injuries or fatalities. In May, a Waymo vehicle struck and killed a dog.

The vote by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates autonomous vehicles, on August 10 is dividing the city between technologists, lobbyists, and citizens hopeful that the nascent industry will be a boon to San Francisco, on the one hand, and agencies, safety advocates, and residents concerned that the city will be used as a testing lab for an unproven technology, on the other.

The vote comes at a key juncture for San Francisco, which is dealing with thousands of tech job losses, corporations leaving the city, and COVID-era work-from-home regulations that have contributed to the city's hollowing out.

"Operating robotaxis in SF has become a litmus test for business viability," Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt wrote on X, the social networking platform that replaced Twitter. "If it works here, there's little doubt it can work pretty much anywhere."

Cruise and Waymo have recently extended to other places such as Dallas, Miami, and Las Vegas and will require more testing against variables such as winter weather, driving rain, and blistering heat, none of which San Francisco can provide.

The firms, as well as others such as Ford and Tesla, have invested billions of dollars in creating self-driving vehicles but have yet to live up to the lofty promises of supplanting existing forms of transportation, and are desperate to establish a safe and profitable business model.

Safety is the primary issue for San Francisco agencies, which have virtually no jurisdiction to control autonomous vehicles and point to social media staples such as traffic jams and encounters with emergency services.

Among other things, the vehicles have been recorded stopping in the midst of intersections after traffic lights turned red, failing to properly pull over to the curb to let people out, blocking bike lanes and suddenly changing lanes or failing to yield to others.

Waymo and Cruise have both stated that they stand behind their safety records, citing a lack of severe accidents in millions of kilometres travelled within the city. "Humans are terrible drivers," Cruise claimed in full-page adverts published last month in a handful of local and national newspapers.

Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina expressed hope for a "swift resolution" to the CPUC's discussions, noting that the vehicles are "reducing traffic injuries and fatalities in the places where we operate."

Residents are also split. Mike Smith wishes to see less autos on city streets. "They're all over my neighbourhood -- they're everywhere, and they just stop randomly on the road and have caused problems with emergency services," he explained in an interview.

In popular videos, activists place orange traffic cones on the hoods of vehicles, confusing their sensors and causing them to stop until a human removes the cone.

Another San Francisco resident, Ramón Iglesias, stated that despite seeing the videos and some unpredictable behaviour from the cars, he supports the extension and is concerned that any additional impediments will drive tech businesses away.

London Breed, the city's mayor, has dubbed the city the "AI capital of the world." Breed "generally supports the use of this technology," according to a municipal official, but "she remains committed to ensuring the public's safety."

Meanwhile, Cruise is not sitting idle while the CPUC deliberates. It announced its expansion to Los Angeles on Friday, where some local officials have also expressed safety concerns.

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