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  • Writer's pictureArun Gopinath

Landmark green light to robotaxi firms to operate commercially in San Francisco

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

View of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California from the Northbound vehicle lane.
View of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

In a landmark decision, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), on 10 August 2023, following a 3-1 vote, granted additional operating permits to driverless taxi firms, Cruise LLC and Waymo LLC to conduct commercial passenger service using driverless vehicles in San Francisco ushering in a new era for driverless car services. Cruise and Waymo possess an Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Program Permit issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) which is a prerequisite for Autonomous Vehicle deployment in California.

Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary, and Waymo, formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, have been given the permits to start charging for service throughout San Francisco. They collectively have about 550 autonomous vehicles already in operation in San Francisco. Waymo currently operates 250 robotaxis while Cruise operates 300 robotaxis at night and 100 robotaxis during the day in San Francisco, the companies said at the CPUC hearing. No numbers were given for how many more robotaxis this would mean on San Francisco's roads or a timeline for expansion to meet the expected incremental growth in demand.

Cruise which already operates its all-electric, self-driving car service in Austin, Texas and Pheonix, Arizona has predicted annual revenues of $1bn by 2025. Prior to the latest approval by CPUC approval, Cruise and Waymo operated in San Francisco and other areas with specified limitations to their operations. Cruise was authorised to offer fared passenger service in limited areas of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. without a safety driver present, fared passenger service throughout San Francisco at any time with a safety driver present, and non-fared passenger service throughout San Francisco at any time without a safety driver present. Waymo was authorised to offer fared passenger service throughout San Francisco at any time with a safety driver present and non-fared passenger service throughout San Francisco at any time without a safety driver present. Waymo is also authorized to offer non-fared passenger service in parts of Los Angeles and in and around Mountain View with or without a safety driver present. The new permits allow both Waymo and Cruise to operate commercially on a 24-hour basis without restrictions on where they can offer these services in the San Francisco area.

Prior to the vote, there was a mix of opinions about the proposal for and against the application from Cruise and Waymo in the community. While it is a major landmark for the industry, regulators warn there’s still much work to be done before autonomous vehicles flood the roads.

Equality groups including LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, San Francisco LGBT Center, Safe Kids Worldwide, Self-Help for the Elderly, Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California, Independent Living Resource Center, United Cerebral Palsy and The Women's Building San Francisco were among the community organisations that supported the wider rollout of autonomous vehicles arguing that while there is scope for improvement in driverless vehicles the longer-term benefits of autonomous driving ultimately outweigh the cons. They asked for evidence-based conversations to show that autonomous vehicles improve road safety, access to transportation, and the availability of zero-emission transportation. These included:

  • Pointing out that "31% of American traffic deaths involve alcohol, and a similar percentage involve speeding. Autonomous vehicles eliminate these problems by design. They don’t get distracted, drive impaired or under the influence, or get tired. They are specifically programmed to follow road rules and not to speed. To them, a stop sign really does mean stop.

  • They increase access to transportation for members of the communities we represent. Far too many people still find it far too hard to get where they need to go safely — a status quo that needs to change. In Phoenix’s East Valley, a study with the regional transportation authority found that a higher number of elderly people and people with disabilities engaged in more out-of-home activities when autonomous vehicles were made available within paratransit options. The accessibility offered by autonomous vehicles - supported through critical partnerships and advocacy - can ensure this next generation of transportation is more inclusive than ever.

  • Autonomous vehicles can also help California meet its ambitious goals for zero-emission transportation. Including emissions from fuel production, transport is responsible for half of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and 80% of air pollutants. Autonomous vehicles are almost always electric. Rolled out as a hailable service, they open access to electric transportation to many who can’t afford their own electric vehicle."

The full text of the open letter from these equality groups can be found here.

San Francisco civic services officials have complained about driverless vehicles saying the robotaxis disrupt traffic and interfere with bus routes and emergency scenes.

  • The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) reported almost 600 incidents since the launch of limited driverless operations, which is likely a fraction of the actual incidents.

  • San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) which is the 9th busiest fire department in the U.S. with 158.972 calls in 2022 had logged over 50 written reports of driverless AV incidents impeding San Francisco First Responders till July 2023 with SFFD Chief Jeanine Nicholson saying at the hearing, “It is not our job to babysit their vehicles.”

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) established four goals for its Autonomous Vehicle (AV) programs which will serve as good guidelines for the implementation in other parts of the world:

1) Protect passenger safety;

2) Expand the benefits of AV technologies to all Californians, including people with disabilities;

3) Improve transportation options for all, particularly for disadvantaged communities and low-income communities; and

4) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, criteria air pollutants, and toxic air contaminants, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

In a statement, CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds said “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. Collaboration between key stakeholders in the industry and the first responder community will be vital in resolving issues as they arise in this innovative, emerging technology space.”

Waymo which already has over 100,000 signups on its growing waitlist, expects demand to be very high. Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo said “We’re incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence from the CPUC, and to the communities and riders who have supported our service. We can’t wait for more San Franciscans to experience the mobility, safety, sustainability and accessibility benefits of full autonomy for themselves — all at the touch of a button.”

In May 2023, Stagecoach launched UK's first autonomous bus service, AB1, between Edinburgh and Fife. AB1 is believed to be the first registered commercial bus service in the world to use full-sized autonomous buses. More information here,

Read the full CPUC Resolution for Cruise here and Waymo here.

Read about the CPUC’s regulation of autonomous vehicles here.

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