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Robotaxis are now legal in San Francisco, but at what cost?

The world is slowly becoming more accustomed to the thought of robotaxis, or autonomous vehicles.
The world is slowly becoming more accustomed to the thought of robotaxis, or autonomous vehicles.

The world is slowly becoming more accustomed to the thought of autonomous vehicles. Many people in the industry, as well as customers would argue that they prefer a human piloting a vehicle, especially taxis. Now, San Francisco has made a landmark ruling in favor of robotaxis. 

It’s become increasingly popular in the tech hub of the US – San Francisco. It’s here where, on August 10th, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) made the decision to allow these driverless taxis freedom to operate 24/7 and accept fares. 

Hit or miss for robotaxis

During the decision-making process, a small gathering of protesters assembled outside the CPUC building. Both sides had support for different reasons. 

The two leading robotaxi companies, GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo, are at the heart of this commercial driverless car movement. And they’re both expanding throughout the country. 

While protesters held banners and raised their voices, representatives from Cruise’s public affairs team held a press conference nearby. Waymo supporters also organized a demonstration. They highlighted the potential benefits of self-driving vehicles for blind passengers.

Some of the concerns are valid. 

A bumpy ride

These vehicles have been reported to just malfunction and stop moving in the middle of the road. The very day after the ruling was made, Cruise cars backed up the city’s North Beach neighborhood after the Outside Lands Music Festival. The festival caused wireless network problems, which seemingly made the cars disconnect from the main server. 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Pros and Cons of Using Autonomous Vehicles for Delivery

On the other hand, the autonomous cars have been interfering with the city’s emergency services, specifically the firefighters. Liz Lindqwister, a data journalist at the nonprofit news startup the San Francisco Standard, who has been following the advent of autonomous taxis, believes these cars are causing issues on the roads.

“Let’s say there are 10 fire trucks coming down to stop a blaze in San Francisco. The Cruise cars don’t know what to do. They’ll just brick up on the street and not move. The issue with that is that they’ll be blocking traffic. They’ll be blocking the emergency vehicles,” Lindqwister reports.

This was, again, proven to be valid just a week following the ruling. 

This time, a Cruise vehicle had been at a green light, entered an intersection, and was hit by the emergency vehicle responding to a call. The robotaxi was carrying one passenger, who was taken by ambulance to a hospital with some not-so-severe injuries. Another Cruise car collided with another vehicle on the same night. 

The DMV steps in 

It’s no surprise that San Francisco officials asked for the ruling to be reconsidered following the three incidents. Officials were worried that the city “will suffer serious harm” if services continue. 

Now, the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) has asked for a reduction in autonomous cars after the Cruise vehicle collided with an emergency vehicle. 

“The DMV is investigating recent incidents involving Cruise vehicles in San Francisco,” the department said in a statement. “Cruise has agreed to a 50% reduction and will have no more than 50 driverless vehicles in operation during the day and 150 driverless vehicles in operation at night.”

Scouting ahead

What does this mean for autonomous taxis, and driverless vehicles in general? Lindqwister believes there is a major uphill battle, as residents in California become increasingly negative towards robotaxis. 

“And I think the big question now, too, is where this is going to fit in in the broader transportation landscape of not just San Francisco, but the state and the country. We have Ubers and Lyfts that still exist. But I imagine a lot of those drivers are frustrated that there are all these self-driving cars that might take their positions,” she explains.

“Our public transportation system is really struggling. So for another car option, private option, to show up like this, that gets a lot of folks really frustrated. Like, is this the right use of our time, of our priorities, of our funding? I don’t know.”

About the author

Marce has contributed tech to various prominent publications since 2018, offering a transparent perspective into the tech industry and its effects on its users. She now spends her time developing insightful content for industry players. You know, when she's not gaming or geeking out about the latest fad.

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