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San Francisco is adamant on expanding driverless car services to city streets

For the past year or so, a startling sight has become common in San Francisco: driverless cars roaming the city’s streets no one at the wheel and an expensive array of electronic navigation sensors.

But plans by two companies to expand driverless taxi services in San Francisco have faced stiff opposition from city officials and some activists. The battle for local tolerance of the tech industry’s new ideas has become a Rorschach test: Are driverless cars an interesting and safe transportation option? Or are they a nuisance and traffic-blocking disaster waiting to happen?

With more than 800,000 residents, San Francisco is the second most densely populated city in the country. Whether self-driving cars can be successful in the city will be a harbinger for their viability in other communities. And the success in San Francisco may, for the first time, provide an indication that Billions invested by the technology and auto industries Benefits may eventually be found in autonomous driving technology.

The California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating self-driving cars in the city, is set to vote Thursday on a plan to allow General Motors-owned Cruise and Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet. is supported. Driverless rides will be charged round the clock across the city. Right now, Cruise can offer late-night paid rides in the northwestern part of the city, while Waymo only offers free rides.

Companies operate their driverless cars without passengers in seemingly endless loops in San Francisco neighborhoods, using real-world experiences of the cars to improve their autonomous technology.

However, local news media have not blamed driverless cars for any serious injuries or accidents. multiple incidents reported It raises concerns that cars, when faced with an unexpected obstacle – wire in the streetfire hoses or even heavy fog – Just lock and won’t move.

Ahead of the CPUC hearing on Monday, citizen groups demonstrated outside the commission’s offices in San Francisco. They included taxi drivers, who fear their jobs will be replaced by the artificial intelligence behind autonomous cars, and public transit workers. One of the activist groups, Safe Street Rebel, has even found a way to make cars easier to shut down traffic cone installation on their hoods. Waymo calls traffic cone prank vandalism.

That the state — and not the city — has the final say on whether to expand driverless car services has also frustrated community groups that have called for, among other things, the expansion of city-wide bicycle-only lanes. successfully fought for.

“I deeply believe this process is flawed,” said Janelle Wong, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “It definitely empowers those members of the state who don’t live in these local cities or locations to experience what it’s like to have these autonomous vehicles around our streets.”

The five members of the CPUC were supposed to decide on the extension in June, but postponed their vote until Thursday. The commission declined to comment on the pending vote.

At Monday’s hearing, city officials argued that the cars got in the way of emergency responders and that the companies that operate them were too slow to do anything about it. The San Francisco Fire Department recorded 55 incidents this year in which firefighters had to deal with a self-driving car — including five reports over the past weekend.

In January, a Cruze self-driving vehicle entered an area where firefighters were working and did not stop until a firefighter “banged her hood and broke the vehicle’s window”, according to city records. did not start In May, a driverless Waymo car stopped a fire engine while it was backing up at a station.

“It’s not our job to take care of their vehicles,” said Jeanine Nicholson, chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. He said instances where firefighters had to look after self-driving cars that didn’t last 30 minutes were “unacceptable”.

City officials said they have also documented nearly 600 incidents involving self-driving cars, in which the cars stopped unexpectedly or took illegal turns.

Representatives of the companies said at the hearing that the average response time during the accident was 10 minutes for Waymo and 14 minutes for Cruise. While technicians can provide some guidance to AI systems in cars, they cannot operate the vehicles remotely.

From January 1 to July 18, Cruz reported 177 rides where his vehicle got stuck on the road and had to be towed—26 of which involved a passenger. Waymo said it has identified 58 incidents in the first six months of 2023 where a vehicle with a passenger had to be retrieved.

Waymo spokeswoman Julia Illina said in a statement that the company reported no injuries in its first million miles of fully autonomous driving, and that each collision was caused by a “violation of regulations or dangerous human behavior.” Driver.”

Cruise spokesman Drew Pucateri said the company has reported more data to regulators “than many other vehicles on the road today.”

But Julia Friedlander, senior manager of self-driving policy at the Municipal Transportation Agency, said the companies’ data was incomplete. Waymo and Cruise are required to report the total number of collisions and incidents each quarter, but only when the incidents “affect the safety of either a passenger in the vehicle or the public.”

Following Cruise and Waymo’s applications to expand their services in December, the city’s planning commission along with the two transportation agencies said in a letter to the CPUC that the self-driving technology companies should provide officials with additional data to decide whether had to report whether the cars were safe enough to operate throughout the city.

In another joint letter to the CPUC in May, the agencies concluded from an analysis by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority that self-driving cars resulted in, on average, more injuries than vehicles driven by human drivers. But the CPUC said in June that the data on which city officials based their analysis was “problematic” because it did not include incidents involving self-driving cars where human drivers were at fault.

The local tech community has generally been supportive of driverless car programs. Gary Tan, chief executive of venture capital fund Y Combinator, said in a YouTube video that executives opposing the expansion were “ideologically driven” and “hated technologies”.

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