Why Robotaxis Are Dividing San Francisco

A curious war between humans and technology has been fought in recent months on the streets of San Francisco, where groups of protesters have targeted the city’s most controversial novelty—the “robotaxi.” Now that war could be entering a new phase.

Driverless taxis have been picking up passengers in San Francisco for a couple of years now as part of an experiment that has seen the City by the Bay become the heart of the robotaxi revolution. They will reach other metros in the U.S. soon, with Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, and Pittsburgh already testing the vehicles.

But many residents and local officials in San Francisco are far from happy that what they see as potentially dangerous technology has been tested on them first.

“When an industry deploys powerful new technology, safety has to be the top priority. And unfortunately during this past year we’ve had too many reports that have called into question whether this technology is safe,” David Chiu, San Francisco City Attorney, told Newsweek.

San Francisco robotaxis
In this Newsweek illustration, members of SafeStreetRebel, a group of anonymous anti-car activists, place a cone on a self-driving taxi to disable it in San Francisco, California, on July 11, 2023.
Getty Images

Chiu listed a series of reported “interferences” caused by the robotaxis, including interrupting traffic flow, impacting public transit and street construction, and “other potentially dangerous situations.”

Several videos posted on social media highlight close-call incidents involving the robotaxis, including instances in which the vehicles “nearly ran over” pedestrians crossing on the sidewalks.

Despite mounting concern, the California Public Utilities Committee (CPUC) voted on August 10 to allow two robotaxi companies—Waymo and Cruise—to expand their fleets and run a 24-hour service.

Cruise is affiliated with General Motors and Waymo with Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The two companies were previously allowed to charge for the rides only at night.

Before the vote, the committee listened to 6 hours of public comments about the robotaxis—including declarations of both hate and love from residents.

“When the CPUC made a decision to allow for unlimited expansion of the pilot program by Cruise and Waymo, our city was very surprised and extremely concerned,” Chiu said.

That’s why he filed a motion on behalf of the city asking the CPUC to immediately pause the program’s unlimited expansion last month. On Monday, Chiu would file a second motion.

Concerns Over Safety

The CPUC’s decision was “extremely controversial,” Chiu said. “From our perspective, we had hoped and thought that the CPUC would have tied any expansion to performance and safety metrics, but they didn’t.”

Instead, data that would “put us at ease has been woefully inadequate,” Chiu said.

“San Francisco has been the experimental grounds for a pilot program by Cruise and Waymo, and as a city, we have been fine with that.

“But the idea that given the safety issues that have arisen there would be unlimited expansion has been extremely concerning. Both Cruise and Waymo have publicly stated plans for a dramatic increase in their fleets, and we’re concerned that such a dramatic increase would lead to significant traffic congestion and many more dangerous incidents like the ones that have already occurred.”

According to Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing District 3, the robotaxis are operating under state law but “don’t have any local permits or oversight of any kind in San Francisco at the local level.”

“The state of California has preempted all local governments from legislating or regulating or overseeing in any way,” he told Newsweek. “The technology is quite impressive, but is still in its relative technological infancy. And the city, as a ground level for its testing, has repeatedly experienced its shortcomings.”

He added that the robotaxis are “extremely capable in most situations but it is the unusual situation that they are not fully developed for.”

The robotaxis can get confused under unusual situations and become immobilized, Peskin said. “They cause traffic congestion and need to be assisted by a remote operator, which is basically a human being somewhere who takes over the car and moves it remotely.”

According to Peskin, there have been cases of robotaxis immobilized in front of fire stations, forcing firefighters to break the vehicle’s windows to remove it. “I’m not making this up,” he said. “The city and county of San Francisco have been documenting as many cases as we can and showing them to state regulators.”

One day after the CPUC’s decision, 10 robotaxis came to a grinding halt in a busy street in San Francisco’s North Shore neighborhood amid the chaos of the Outside Lands music festival.

In an incident on August 14, two Cruise driverless taxis blocked the passage of an ambulance treating a man with life-threatening injuries, according to a report by a San Francisco fire department first obtained by Forbes. The vehicles delayed care for the patient, who died 20 to 30 minutes after reaching the hospital.

Of the latest incident, Chiu said that he doesn’t think “it was a coincidence that in the weeks after the CPUC’s decision we’ve seen many instances of unsafe performances by these vehicles.”

In a statement, Cruise told Newsweek: “On August 14 two Cruise AVs encountered an active emergency scene at an intersection in which a pedestrian had been hit by a human-driven car. The first vehicle promptly clears the area once the light turns green and the other stops in the lane to yield to first responders who are directing traffic.”

The company added: “Throughout the entire duration the AV is stopped, traffic remains unblocked and flowing to the right of the AV. The ambulance behind the AV had a clear path to pass the AV as other vehicles, including another ambulance, proceeded to do. As soon as the victim was loaded into the ambulance, the ambulance left the scene immediately and was never impeded from doing so by the AV.”

The CPUC has also defended its decision to expand the use of robotaxis.

“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,” said CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds in a written statement shared with Newsweek. “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 and Cruise, on the other hand, insist that the vehicles are safe—even safer than humans-driven cars.

“During the course of more than 3 million miles of fully autonomous driving in San Francisco we’ve seen an enormous number of emergency vehicles—more than 168,000 interactions just in the first 7 months of this year alone,” Cruise said.

“Our technology is always improving, and we maintain an open line of communication with first responders to receive feedback and discuss specific incidents to improve our response.”

According to a study that Cruise conducted in collaboration with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, since November 2021 the company’s robotaxis were involved in 54 percent fewer collisions than normal vehicles.

Waymo has also produced evidence, through a 2022 study in partnership with Swiss Re, that its driverless vehicles are “significantly safer than human-driven ones.”

Newsweek contacted Waymo for comment by email on Tuesday, September 5, but the company did not respond.

San Franciscans Are Split Over Robotaxis

Some residents are just as concerned as Chiu and Peskin. Several activists, part of the anti-car SafeStreet Rebel group, organized acts of protest this summer which included placing cones over the robotaxi’s 365-degree sensor atop its roof—something that has the power to send them to an immediate halt, effectively disabling them.

The group has started collecting reports of malfunctioning and other incidents involving the driverless vehicles. It has listed a total of 291 incidents so far.

Peskin said that the robotaxis are not as divisive as it seems, because “very few people are using them as taxis.”

“I can tell you from my constituents—and this is an anecdotal, unscientific guess—that the people of San Francisco are very skeptical about this technology,” he told Newsweek.

But many are actually excited about the robotaxis. There was positive feedback for them from the disabled community during the CPUC public comment session, with many saying that driverless vehicles provide them with a better and more reliable service than Uber or other companies and improve the availability of transportation.

Others have found they offer unusual perks—including a place to have sex.

What Future For Robotaxis?

The opposition to robotaxis doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone wants to see them gone.

“We’re not seeking to get rid of the autonomous vehicles,” Chiu said. “Everyone involved sees the potential benefits and value of this technology. But that being said, it appears clear from the safety records of this past year that unlimited expansion of these vehicles may be premature.”

What city authorities want, Peskin said, “is an incremental approach based on meeting various safety performance metrics.”