Connecting state and local government leaders
California regulators recently lifted restrictions on driverless cars in San Francisco, despite objections from local leaders. As autonomous vehicles come to more cities, these fights may be more common.
Just days after California regulators voted to allow driverless cars to roam the streets of San Francisco 24/7, at least 10 of the self-driving Cruise robotaxis shut down outside a music festival causing a traffic jam and potential safety hazards.
While the meltdown was short-lived, it illustrated the potential havoc that local officials and safety advocates warn computer-driven vehicles could have on the streets and neighborhoods where they are deployed.
“With nearly 43,000 people killed on our nation’s roadways in 2021, it is clear that we need our leaders and policymakers to advance proven solutions to address this public health crisis,” said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, during a recent press conference. “There is no independent evidence that [autonomous vehicles] will do so. In fact, what we do know is that the AVs on public roads have caused havoc.”
San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the robotaxis now operating in her city. She says the driverless vehicles have interfered with firefighters at least 55 times since the start of the year, running over fire hoses, blocking the exit of fire engines from their stations and even driving into crime scenes where people need medical attention.
“The biggest concern is that someone is going to get really severely injured or killed because we cannot properly respond to an incident,” Nicholson said in a June TV interview. “We’ve really gotten lucky so far, but it’s only a matter of time before something really, really catastrophic happens.”
The dire warnings from safety advocates, though, come at the same time that the companies that make autonomous vehicles are asking cities, state regulators and even Congress to allow them to deploy more self-driving cars.
“I do not state this lightly: The future of this highly competitive, capital-intensive industry hangs in the balance,” John Bozzella, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry group, told a U.S. House committee last month. “The next decade will define which nations shape the future of automotive innovation and manufacturing. If U.S. policymakers do not support the development, commercialization and acceptance of automated vehicle technologies, our nation risks becoming dependent on foreign sources in a future defined by others.”
The introduction of driverless vehicles to American streets took on new urgency earlier this month, when the California Public Utilities Commission cleared the way on a 3-1 vote to allow robotaxi companies Cruise and Waymo’s self-driving vehicles to pick up paying passengers anytime and anywhere in San Francisco. The vote could lead to thousands of driverless vehicles operating in the city.
Both companies have already been operating in San Francisco for over a year, but before this month, the commission restricted the times and areas they were allowed to work. In some cases, it required a safety driver to be present.
“While we do not yet have the data to judge AVs against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” said an agency Commissioner John Reynolds, who once worked for Cruise.
Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said the decision showed the country that California “prioritizes progress over our tragic status quo.”
The company, which is primarily owned by General Motors, recently announced it would start testing in Nashville and Charlotte, N.C. It has already started operating in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Phoenix. Vogt said the company has improved the ability of the vehicles to “adapt to unusual things like pedicabs, pedal taverns and even donkeys.”
“We’ve got a playbook running now. Scout a city, augment our datasets, retrain, validate and go. Once we’re up and running, the data keeps streaming in,” he wrote on Twitter last month. “It’s mostly automated now, too. If our engineers wrote absolutely no new code for a month, our systems would still automatically retrain our [machine learning] models using the latest data, and the AVs would get slightly better. This is the really remarkable thing about AVs. They just keep getting better, and that progress is showing no signs of slowing.”
Waymo, a company that was started by Google, operates in Phoenix and San Francisco and is “ramping up” in Austin and Los Angeles, according to a company website.
The expansion in San Francisco, though, is especially significant. It is the city most associated with the nation’s tech industry, but it is also a dense, hilly peninsula that makes driving—whether by human or machine—much more complicated than in many car-friendly Sun Belt cities.
The city’s politics present another challenge. Mayor London Breed, several city supervisors and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency opposed the expansion. Among other things, they criticized Waymo and Cruise for not sharing data about their vehicles’ performance on city roads. City agencies documented nearly 600 incidents of unexpected stops (lasting from a few minutes to several hours) over the last year, which they say is likely an undercount.
In addition to the fire department, city law enforcement has also raised concerns about the vehicles.
“In our line of work,” said Lt. Tracy McCray, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, “seconds can mean the difference between life and death. And when a vehicle of this nature is unresponsive to our demands to move out of the roadway or to stop blocking our access so we can get to victims who’ve been involved in a shooting or a collision … it takes away seconds from us being able to go in and do our job effectively.”
But the California Public Utilities Commission is a state agency, whose members are appointed by the governor. Reynolds, the former Cruise lawyer who now serves on the commission, said the data that the San Francisco fire chief recited was “anecdotal” and “lacking sufficient rigor.” And while city leaders opposed the expansion, people with disabilities and labor leaders in San Francisco backed the move by the state commission, citing the extra mobility options they provide and the potential jobs they could create.
The debate in San Francisco could soon expand nationwide, as members of Congress decide whether to expand the number of autonomous vehicles the federal government allows throughout the country and ease other restrictions on their deployment.
Ariel Wolf, the general counsel for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, told members of the U.S. House in July that autonomous vehicles could help reduce road deaths.
“Autonomous vehicles will save lives, which is why the AV industry is so committed to developing this technology and to deploying it in a timely manner,” he said in his testimony. “AV technology not only will make our roads safer, but also can transform our transportation system by making it more accessible, efficient and sustainable.”
Wolf advocated for a national AV strategy, in part, to help the U.S. stay ahead of competitors in China, Singapore, Germany and the United Kingdom in developing autonomous vehicles.
Safety advocates say such a move is premature. Michael Brooks, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said during a conference call that autonomous vehicle makers have yet to show that their cars are as safe as human drivers, much less that they’re safer.
Computer-controlled cars don’t drive drunk, stoned, distracted or sleepy, he acknowledged. But humans don’t have problems like security breaches, software defects, short circuits, data loss, timing errors or artificial intelligence training errors.
“Future benefits of AVs remain speculative and have yet to be proven in any tangible form,” he said, “but the AV industry continues to promote these aspirational future benefits for people with disabilities, to seniors, for the environment, and for improved safety outcomes for everyone on the roads. We would absolutely love for all of those things to happen, but right now the autonomous vehicle that can bring these positives simply doesn’t exist.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.