Local Leaders Plead With State to Slow Driverless Taxi Rollout

San Francisco leaders are expressing concerns about driverless taxis less than a year after state regulators allowed them to start operating on some city streets. As the technology gets ready to expand to more localities, officials in San Francisco and beyond are pleading with the state to slow down.

The most critical question is whether these vehicles are safe. Robotaxi critics say there is a lack of data to answer that question one way or another. After a 2021 lawsuit filed by autonomous driving company Waymo, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) agreed to let the company keep crash report details out of public view. Waymo claims release of that information would expose its trade secrets.

Here’s some of what we do know:

  • Over 90 traffic incidents involving self-driving taxis have been documented by San Francisco’s transit agency.
  • Since the start of 2023, the San Francisco Fire Department has responded to nearly 40 incidents involving self-driving taxis.
  • Since 2014, the DMV has logged 612 crash reports involving autonomous vehicles of all kinds.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recorded 22 fatalities as a result of autonomous vehicles.

One of the biggest safety concerns is the vehicles’ ability to interfere with or delay emergency responses. According to San Francisco’s transit agency, an unmanned taxi recently drove into a fire scene. Firefighters were forced to stop the vehicle and smash its window. In another incident, a driverless taxi blocked emergency personnel responding to a mass shooting. Had they not been able to find an alternative route, the fallout could have been “catastrophic,” officials said. 

“They’re not ready for prime time,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson told the Los Angeles Times

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin believes state regulators have dropped the ball and given too much power to the tech companies on this issue.

“We’re saying, don’t give them everything they want until [the safety claims] are proven. Don’t make us the guinea pigs," he said

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will vote on an expansion of driverless taxis on June 29. The novel vehicles could begin operating throughout San Francisco 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Under the resolutions, traffic flow and interference with emergency workers could not be used to deny expansion permits

In letters to the CPUC, San Francisco transportation authorities have repeatedly asked regulators to pump the breaks and implement more rules before letting the technology expand. They have also argued that the expansion requires an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act. 

San Francisco is not alone. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the City of Santa Monica have submitted comments to CPUC expressing concerns about a premature rollout and the need for more data transparency. 

Read more here.