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California allows robo-taxis to expand and emergency responders aren't happy

San Francisco has served as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles made by the companies Waymo (pictured above) and Cruise.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
San Francisco has served as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles made by the companies Waymo (pictured above) and Cruise.

A battle has been brewing in San Francisco over driverless cars. Hundreds of the autonomous vehicles have been roaming city streets over the past couple of years.

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, voted 3-1 to let self-driving car companies expand their programs and start charging passengers like taxis.

The build-up before the Commission's vote Thursday was tense. Public comment lasted more than six hours. Much of that testimony was about how autonomous vehicles have impeded emergency operations in the city.

San Francisco's police and fire departments have urged the CPUC to oppose the expansion – they say they've tallied 55 incidents where self-driving cars have got in the way of rescue operations in just the last six months. The incidents include running through yellow emergency tape, blocking firehouse driveways and refusing to move for first responders.

"Our folks cannot be paying attention to an autonomous vehicle when we've got ladders to throw," San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said in a public meeting on Monday providing commissioners testimony before Thursday's vote. "I am not anti-technology, I am pro-safety."

The autonomous vehicles are run by Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, and Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet. Some of the cars have human safety drivers who ensure things run smoothly while on the road , others are empty.

Waymo says it has a permit for 250 vehicles and it deploys around 100 at any given time. Cruise says it runs 100 cars in San Francisco during the day and 300 at night. During a July earnings call, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said the city could handle several thousand more driverless cars.

Both companies have urged the CPUC to let them expand their programs in San Francisco and other California cities, including Los Angeles and Santa Monica, which currently have limited programs.

Now, with Thursday's vote, the companies can charge customers for rides in cars without a human driver at all hours of the day. Previously they were only allowed to carry passengers on a limited basis.

The companies say driverless vehicles are safer than human-driven ones when it comes to passenger safety. They maintain none of the incidents cited by the fire and police departments have resulted in passenger injury.

Neither company has directly answered why their technology is responding to emergency vehicles this way.

"We have demonstrated our deep willingness and longtime commitment to work in partnership with California state, SF city and first responders," said Waymo spokesperson Katherine Barna. Cruise spokesperson Drew Pusateri said: "Autonomous vehicles are used by thousands of California residents and have a strong safety record."

But it's not just about passenger safety, said Fire Chief Nicholson. She said that when the driverless cars get in the way of and slow down emergency vehicles, they pose a threat to public safety overall.

"Every second can make a difference. A fire can double is size in one minute," she said during the meeting. "If we are blocked by an autonomous vehicle that could lead to more harm to the people in that building, to the housing overall and to my first responders."

The fire department has also documented driverless cars rolling over the firehoses used to put out blazes. In one of those episodes, captured on police body camera footage obtained by Mission Local, a driverless car approached the scene of a massive fire in a residential neighborhood and inched slowly toward the firehose as frustrated first responders did all they could to stop it.

"No! Go back!" they yelled. "It doesn't know what to do!"

Several police officer and firefighter associations and unions in the Bay Area wrote letters to the CPUC urging the regulator to hold off on allowing the expansion of driverless car programs in San Francisco, according to Mission Local.

"While we all applaud the advancements in technology, we must not be in such a rush that we forget the human element and the effects such technology unchecked can create dangerous situations," wrote the San Francisco Police Officers Association in June. The groups asked the CPUC "not to approve the application for autonomous vehicles until more research is done."

Hundreds of California residents also submitted public comments to the regulator. The vast majority said they opposed the expansion of the driverless car program. Many of the commenters quoted the words of Fire Chief Nicholson when she told the LA Times in June that driverless cars are "not ready for prime time."

As the CPUC concluded its vote on Thursday, the commissioners agreed that they'd like to check in again in three months to assess how the program is going.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
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