Waymo and Cruise have gained approval to operate their paid robotaxi services around the clock in San Francisco, marking a significant advancement autonomous vehicle world.
The decision was reached after a public hearing that lasted six hours and witnessed both support and opposition from residents regarding the presence of these vehicles in the city.
This development signifies a major triumph for autonomous vehicle companies, that have made substantial investments in the technology but faced challenges in obtaining substantial returns.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted 3-to-1 to allow Waymo and Cruise to offer their services at all day hours within San Francisco while charging passengers for rides.
John Reynolds, a CPUC Commissioner and former General Counsel at GM-backed Cruise, emphasized that this decision marked a crucial initial stride toward bringing autonomous vehicle transportation to Californians.
Waymo and Cruise Celebrate the News
Presently, the companies offer limited service, but this decision essentially grants robotaxis unrestricted access to the peninsula and its residents.
This newfound operational freedom allows them to function similarly to popular ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft, enabling them to navigate anywhere within the city, at any time, and charge passengers for their services.
Waymo hailed it as a "major moment" in the autonomous vehicle landscape, emphasizing the significance of this permit for their commercial operations in San Francisco.
Cruise's CEO, Kyle Vogt, regarded the decision not only as a significant milestone for the AV industry but also as a statement that California prioritizes progress.
The Pros and Cons of Robotaxis
The public hearing featured various voices, particularly from the disabled community, providing insights into the pros and cons of autonomous ride-hailing services.
Opponents raised concerns about malfunctioning vehicles, traffic congestion, and the unchecked presence of autonomous cars.
In contrast, supporters highlighted the potential safety benefits of AVs compared to human drivers and the potential advantages for disabled individuals who currently lack adequate transportation options.
While the disabled community wasn't entirely united in favor of the expansion, the decision ultimately reflects a belief that Waymo and Cruise have fulfilled the requirements outlined in the state's regulatory framework for autonomous vehicle testing and commercial operation.
The CPUC expects these companies to engage with first responders, law enforcement, and city officials, and to take appropriate actions to address concerns arising from their operations.
Residents & Police Are Not Happy
During the hearing, the commissioners underlined the importance of addressing San Francisco officials' and residents' concerns.
Issues like autonomous vehicles obstructing roads, causing traffic congestion, and impeding emergency vehicles were flagged.
If such incidents continue to be reported, the CPUC retains the authority to potentially limit the number of vehicles on the road or even revoke the companies' permits.
Darcie Houck, another CPUC Commissioner, conveyed that the decision wasn't taken lightly and was based on a broad range of opinions presented during the hearing.
Incidentally, not a week later, 10 Cruise self-driving cars held up traffic and blocked roads for 15 minutes in the city’s North Beach neighborhood. This has caused residents and police to be even more annoyed by self-driving cars.
“The time that it takes for an officer or any other public safety employee to try and interact with an autonomous vehicle is frustrating in the best-case scenario, but when they can not comprehend our demands to move to the side of the roadway and are stopped in the middle of the roadway blocking emergency response units, then it rises to another level of danger,” wrote Tracy McCray, President of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, “and that is unacceptable.”