San Francisco is getting cold feet about self-driving car tests
San Francisco officials have called for a slower, more considered expansion of the use of autonomous vehicles, which have blocked traffic and hampered emergency services
31 January 2023
Officials in San Francisco have asked for a halt to the expansion of driverless car tests across the city after a series of incidents that have hampered the work of emergency services.
San Francisco’s position at the heart of Silicon Valley and its wealth of technology talent has made it a hotbed for the driverless car industry. Both Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Cruise, owned by General Motors, operate experimental robotic taxi services in the city. But they haven’t been without problems.
New Scientist has previously reported how autonomous vehicles (AV) from Cruise, for example, have randomly stopped and blocked traffic and had a run-in with police. But details of other incidents with driverless cars have now emerged in letters from city officials.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) has written to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) saying that managers in the City’s Department of Emergency Management began to notice a number of 911 calls last year from people who had seen such cars stop without reason and block traffic, as well as “erratic driving”, such as indicating in one direction and moving in the other.
These unexpected stops on busy streets range from minutes to hours, says one of the letters, giving an example of a Cruise car that reportedly stopped and blocked a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle on its way to a fire. In another incident, a Cruise car entered an area where firefighters were working and nearly ran over their hoses – it only stopped when firefighters shattered the front window of the vehicle.
Both Cruise and Waymo currently operate small fleets between the hours of 10pm and 6am in a confined area of San Francisco, but each has applied for permission to spread further across the city and operate more cars 24 hours a day.
The SFCTA has now written separate letters to the CPUC about both Cruise’s and Waymo’s expansion plans and called for “restraint… rather than rapid expansion”.
“Cruise AVs have made unplanned and unexpected stops in travel lanes where they obstruct traffic and transit service, and intruding into active emergency response scenes,” says the letter about Cruise. “If the Commission approves sweeping authorizations for both Waymo and Cruise, the hazards and network impacts… could soon affect a large percentage of all San Francisco travelers.”
Neither Cruise nor Waymo responded to a request for comment by New Scientist. However, in a statement, Cruise has emphasised that its safety record “includes having driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities”. A Waymo spokesperson has said that the letters aere “a standard part of the regulatory process” and the company would continue its “healthy dialogue” with city officials.
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