California agency approves robotics expansion in San Francisco, a win for Cruise, Waymo

Cruise’s self-driving car, owned by General Motors, is seen outside the company’s San Francisco headquarters where it conducts most of its testing, in California, U.S. September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Heather Somerville/File Photo

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), Waymo and Cruise General Motors Inc. can operate paid robotaxis services using unmanned autonomous vehicles across San Francisco, Calif. California state regulators voted Thursday, in the face of strong opposition from City transportation, safety agencies and many residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s vote — 3 to 1 — takes effect immediately, which means companies now have permission to begin a citywide paid taxi service across the city and at all hours of the day.

Cruz and Waymo were running beta services limited by times and geographic regions. Neither company indicated on Thursday how soon it might move to make the 24-hour taxi service a reality.

The move is a significant step forward in regulating robot cars, which Waymo, Cruz, and others have been rolling out systematically in cities and states across the country.

The approval “marks the true beginning of our business operations in San Francisco,” Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said in a prepared statement.

The vote puts “Cruise in a position to compete with the traditional passenger carrier, challenging the unsafe and inaccessible mode of transportation,” Prashanthi Raman, Cruise’s vice president of global government affairs, said in an emailed statement.

San Francisco is important as a symbolic hub for the technology, and with more than 500 self-driving vehicles already in operation, it’s the largest testing lab for experimental cars. The companies said real-world testing in dense city environments is essential to perfecting the technology.

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The San Francisco Fire Department, planning commission, transportation agencies and others have pressed the commission, which is charged with regulating self-driving vehicles statewide, for a slower rollout of cars, citing what they said were multiple incidents of interference with fire trucks and generally erratic police activity. Leadership.

Waymo will be allowed to drive up to 65mph and in inclement weather, while cruises will be limited to 35mph and will not be allowed to drive when the weather doesn’t permit, the commission said Thursday.

The companies, which have applied with the commission for permits to expand the taxi service, said their cars are safer than distracted human drivers, and have yet to cause life-threatening injury or death.

Cruise and Waymo will now compete directly with local companies Uber and Lyft (LYFT.O) in providing rides called for by the app.

The cars, with empty driver’s seats and self-spinning steering wheels, have become a common sight across San Francisco. Locals frequently document driving hiccups on social media.

Cruz said at a recent public hearing that it has about 300 vehicles operating at night and 100 during the day, while Waymo said it has roughly 250, 100 of which are in operation at any one time. Both are expected to add to that figure now that the committee has approved the proposal.

The proposal divided San Francisco between locals who resent their city being used as a testing ground for what they say is unproven technology and those who say they feel the token tech capital should lead in developing what can lead to fewer traffic crashes and injuries.

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Hundreds of residents and members of various interest groups have come forward to the commission’s San Francisco hearing room to comment in one-minute increments on both sides of the issue, citing issues ranging from accessibility, safety, software coding, union activism and conflicts among a host of other concerns. The open comment period lasted more than six hours.

On Tuesday, the committee heard testimony from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that it has logged nearly 600 incidents involving self-driving vehicles since the spring of 2022 and that they believe this is a “small fraction” of the total due to what they say are lax reporting requirements. . San Francisco Fire Chief Janine Nicholson told the commission that “it is not the responsibility of my people to get into one of your cars and take it over.”

Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma called for a postponement of the vote, citing the volume of public comment and her continued concerns following evidence that emergency vehicles were impeded by vehicles in San Francisco. It was the only “no” vote.

“All it takes is a real-world example of a driverless autonomous vehicle that prevents a first responder from doing their job in real time, which convinces me we shouldn’t agree to a citywide deployment,” she said.

Technologists and other residents who have supported the wider spread of self-driving vehicles said they fear a “no” vote could derail the local industry that brings jobs and attention to a city desperate for a lift.

(Reporting by Greg Bensinger). Editing by Jamie Freed and Diane Craft

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Greg Bensinger joins Reuters as a technology reporter in 2022 focusing on the world’s largest technology companies. He was formerly a member of the New York Times editorial board and a reporter on tech beats for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. He also worked for Bloomberg News writing about the automotive and telecom industries. He studied English Literature at the University of Virginia and graduated in Journalism from Columbia University. Greg lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.

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