July 14, 2024
GM's Cruise, blamed for the majority of incidents with emergency responders, claims its robotaxis drive more safely than people.

Driverless, traffic-snarling robot taxis that just started transporting paying passengers in San Francisco are expected to expand to other Bay Area cities — whether local officials and residents want them or not.

Just a day after state regulators allowed robotaxi leaders Cruise and Waymo to start taking paid fares with self-driving vehicles and no onboard human backup on Aug. 10, nearly a dozen robotaxis abruptly stopped and jammed traffic in the city’s North Beach neighborhood.

A few days later, as Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was perched at a sidewalk table at the scene of the North Beach snarl-up, a Cruise car behind him started a left turn onto busy, four-lane Columbus Avenue, then suddenly veered right to continue straight up Vallejo Street. Peskin turned to watch as the driverless car stopped 15 feet behind the stop line at Grant Avenue, paused 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.”

As a Waymo autonomous vehicle passes behind him, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin raises concerns about the regulation of the so-called robotaxis in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. A state agency granted both Waymo and Cruise the green light to begin accepting paid customers last week. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Advocates say robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles promise relief from escalating carnage on America’s roads. But officials, technology experts and citizens worry that the vehicles, known for obstructing emergency vehicles and bottlenecking traffic, could hinder an ambulance long enough to kill a patient, or hamper emergency responders and trap fleeing people in an earthquake, fire or other disaster.

“It’s a recipe for death,” Peskin said.

On Thursday night in San Francisco, a Cruise robotaxi struck a fire truck en route to an emergency, sending a Cruise passenger to the hospital. Peskin said he was told by the city’s fire chief that the truck, with lights and sirens wailing, was “creeping” into the intersection when the robotaxi, on a green light, collided with it.

On Friday, the Department of Motor Vehicles said it was investigating “recent concerning incidents” with Cruise robotaxis in San Francisco and asked the company to halve the number of operating vehicles until the probe is done. The agency noted it could revoke Cruise’s operating permits. Cruise said it has complied and would work with the DMV.

In California, it matters little whether city and emergency officials oppose driverless taxis on their streets. Authority lies with the state, which has embraced them. The DMV has authorized several companies to put autonomous vehicles on public roads and the Public Utilities Commission this month green-lighted the expansion for GM’s Cruise and Google spinoff Waymo. Cruise runs up to 300 robotaxis in San Francisco, Waymo around 100.

Cruise and Waymo declined to say if they plan more robotaxis for the Bay Area. Cruise said making roads safer was an “urgent mission” for the company, claiming that its first million driver-less miles, compared to human drivers, resulted in 54% fewer collisions, However, Cruise’s own report noted “this comparison is not easy to make … (because) there is relatively little data available to measure human driving performance.” Waymo claimed its cars interact with emergency vehicles hundreds of times daily, the “vast majority” of the time without issue.

San Jose officials are closely watching the technology, but have little influence over its deployment. “Building relationships with these companies is the best we can do now, hoping that they engage with us in a positive way,” said Colin Heyne, a San Jose transportation spokesman.

Cruise autonomous vehicles return to their fleet parking lot in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, one week after a state agency gave both Cruise and Ways the green light to begin accepting paid customers. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Good luck with that, Peskin said. San Francisco has pursued “a collaborative relationship directly with the companies,” he said, but “they have not been reciprocal in that desire.”

Oakland officials said last year in a letter to the utilities commission that they know that city “may be next” for robotaxi expansion. City officials have been “closely following the events in San Francisco,” but Oakland does not have an official position on robotaxi deployment, transportation director Fred Kelley said. The letter to the commission raised concerns over the vehicles’ ability to comply with traffic codes. Police have no authority to cite the cars for breaking traffic laws, the letter noted.

On Wednesday, San Francisco filed motions with the regulator asking it to pause the robotaxi expansion, citing interference with emergency responders, transit, construction work and traffic flow. The technical issues causing problems have not been fixed and will likely worsen as the companies expand, the motions said. The commission said it was reviewing the motions.

A Cruise autonomous vehicle crosses Broadway on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, one week after a state agency gave both Cruise and Ways the green light to begin accepting paid customers. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

When the commission announced the expansion, commissioner John Reynolds — a lawyer for Cruise until joining the agency last year — said he and his colleagues did “not yet have the data to judge (robotaxis) against the standard human drivers are setting.” But he said the technology could increase road safety, and companies and first responders need to collaborate to address problems that surface.

Others have already seen enough of the current crop of vehicles. Peskin and San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson have said robotaxis in their current form severely threaten public safety, and that their many mishaps — one recently drove around city street construction cones and got stuck in newly poured concrete — are harbingers of 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.

Nicholson, city police and transit officials said in a report earlier this month that robotaxis, a majority from Cruise, have made nearly 600 documented unexpected stops since June 2022, “likely a fraction of actual incidents.”

The vehicles have interfered with emergency responders more than 60 times, Peskin said. Incidents in the past two weeks included a robotaxi cutting directly in front of a fire truck heading 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, according to city reports.

On Aug. 11, tech worker Greg Giachino came upon the cluster of 10 Cruise robotaxis in North Beach stopped for at least 15 minutes, he said. “Human drivers are bad. But a human driver can get out of the way of a fire truck,” he said.

Robotaxi companies have persuaded officials that their software drives better than people, said Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Phil Koopman, who studies the technology. “We’re finding out that’s not really true,” Koopman said.

Because the companies operate in secrecy, when their cars go haywire, the reasons remain unclear, Koopman said. The North Beach blockage highlights the risks of stalled robotaxis during a disaster, Koopman said.

“The next earthquake you’re going to find every single Cruise vehicle in the middle of the road blocking stuff,” he said. “That’s what you should expect.”

Related Articles

Technology |

Me & My Car: ’56 Studebaker in East Bay a ‘face-lift’ of an earlier model

Technology |

DMV demands Cruise cut driverless fleet in half following crashes

Technology |

Man found dead inside parked car on Oakland highway

Technology |

VTA has one of the best transit recoveries in the nation, but ridership is still down from pre-pandemic numbers

Technology |

Southwest Airlines promised better performance after holiday meltdown. Has it delivered?

In San Francisco last week, Clara Grimmelbein, a 19-year-old University of Virginia computer science major, was sitting at a sidewalk cafe with her parents when a robotaxi drove by. Grimmelbein said she wished she could ride in one. “It’s new and exciting,” she said. “I trust machines more than people.”

A block away, poet Marvin Hiemstra, 84, a city resident since 1967, lamented the vehicles’ presence. “I don’t see any advantage to it for anybody, except for maybe a handful of companies,” he said.