Technology

Ready or Not, the Future Is Here: Driverless Cars Are Already on Our Roads

By Linda Badger

For nearly a decade, futuristic-looking Waymo and Cruise “autonomous vehicles” (AVs) have roamed the streets of tech-forward San Francisco, with human “safety” drivers behind the wheel. These AVs were being programmed and tested for the day when they could transport passengers and goods without human drivers and “transform the transportation system.” While our transportation system is yet to be transformed, driverless cars are here.

If you think you’ve seen one of these cars in your neighborhood, with no one at the wheel, your eyes are not deceiving you. Both Waymo and Cruise are sending “unmanned” driverless cars onto San Francisco streets as part of a pilot program overseen by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC).

The CPUC has imposed numerous restrictions on when, where and how the companies can operate commercial passenger services using AVs in San Francisco. For example, Cruise (funded by General Motors) can offer its driverless passenger service for a fee, but only between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., at a maximum speed of 30 m.p.h., and not in the City’s crowded downtown core. Waymo (owned by Alphabet/Google) can operate at all hours, up to 65 m.p.h., but must have a human “safety” driver present to charge a fee for rides.

Waymo has been able to clock fully driverless hours by offering free rides to its employees and to adventuresome members of the public who signed up for free rides on the “Waymo One” ride hailing app. Since December 2022, Cruise has partnered with USF to offer students free rides in its driverless taxis.

In December 2022, both companies petitioned the CPUC to lift nearly all restrictions on their operations in San Francisco. Both Cruise and Waymo tout impressive safety records, although Waymo has been more transparent. After more than 1 million miles of driverless rides in cities like Phoenix and San Francisco, Waymo reported no injuries; only two collisions significant enough for a car to be towed; and 18 minor “contact events,” none of which involved pedestrians or bicyclists. Fifty-five percent of all events involved human error. The companies point out that their cars are never distracted, drowsy, drunk or speeding while on the road.

Nevertheless, in January, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the Mayor’s Office protested the companies’ requests for nearly unlimited permits, calling for a more incremental approach.

While the prospect of all-electric, driverless cars is exciting and taking the “human” factor out of driving has some appeal, the City’s concerns are understandable. There have been incidents where AVs have unexpectedly stopped, blocking traffic until human “rescue drivers” sent by the company arrived to drive them away. Not to mention the YouTube video of an SFPD officer stopping a Cruise AV on Clement Street because its headlights were off, only to find there was no driver – and then to watch the car inexplicably zip away to the next block. Some of these potential hazards, such as incidents of unplanned or unexpected stops, do not have to be reported by the companies, so the City is asking for more data and transparency.

The scene above will likely be a familiar sight thoughout San Francisco for many years to come: A car driving by without a person in the driver’s seat. Photo by Linda Badger.

Between May 2022 and Dec. 31, 2022, the City learned of 92 separate incidents of unplanned and unexpected stops, mostly involving Cruise AVs. City officials assert that this number is too high, and that the effect on public transit, traffic and safety will only grow once AVs are allowed to operate without limitation on city streets. The City is particularly concerned that stalled AVs will result in more Muni delays.

The City’s protest also describes a handful of incidents involving the City’s emergency services. On several occasions, AVs reportedly interfered with active fire scenes, running over a fire hose, for example. Emergency services were also unnecessarily deployed in several incidents in which AVs summoned 911 due to “unresponsive passengers,” who had simply fallen asleep during their robo-rides.

Moreover, the City pointed out that there is no government oversight as to how many AVs Cruise and Waymo decide to deploy in San Francisco, which some believe already has too many cars crowding its narrow streets. Unaddressed is the impact AVs could have on the many Bay Area residents who make a living by offering ride share, delivery and taxi services.

To date, it is uncertain the affect AV passenger services will have on our transportation system. Before a decision is made to go beyond the present pilot program, the City wants more data, more study and more oversight. On the other hand, the companies want to move forward, promising safer streets and fleets of electric vehicles that are better for the environment.

Whether thrilled or terrified by the prospect of driverless car services operating freely in San Francisco, buckle your seatbelts: The CPUC is set to decide this contentious issue by mid-May 2023.

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