Waymo and Cruise robotaxis approved for bigger San Francisco operation

Go-ahead for paid driverless services in the city is a major milestone towards commercialising the technology

A Waymo minivan arrives to pick up passengers for an autonomous vehicle ride in Mesa, Arizona. AP
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California regulators voted in favour of robotaxi operators expanding their paid driverless services in the San Francisco city, a major milestone towards commercialising the technology.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission voted three to one to allow General Motors’ Cruise and Google’s Waymo to increase the areas of the city where they can operate a car without a safety driver, and charge riders a fare for it.

Alphabet and GM both fell less than 1 per cent as the markets opened on Friday.

The commission, meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, heard hours of public evidence arguing for and against the expansion of Waymo and Cruise’s turf.

Robotaxis have increasingly become a normal sight on the northern California city’s roads, with Waymo running a fleet of about 200 cars. Such services are currently limited in where they can drive, and the companies typically cannot charge passengers.

Cruise has 300 cars across three cities – San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix – averaging 1,000 trips a day. Both services have thousands of people on waiting lists to try them out.

“This is a huge milestone that enables us to expand Waymo One in SF and continue to serve you,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Cruise said it will help revamp an “unsafe” transport system. It “will continue to work closely with our regulators, first responders and other key stakeholders as we expand our service to more people”, a Cruise representative said in a statement.

Several people at the hearing expressed the view that expanding the services of driverless taxis would better serve those with disabilities.

Human-driven ride-share vehicles often neglect the needs of picking up people with physical challenges, such as stopping abruptly at a curb, some said. Others said autonomous taxis would eliminate discrimination from the process of hailing a ride.

“I experienced rideshare drivers who have left me on the street and refused to open their vehicles,” city resident Sean Durkin told commissioners at the meeting.

Others who gave evidence argued that expanding autonomous vehicles would make the city’s streets safer.

“I never have to guess if Cruise is going to decide to follow traffic rules today,” said San Francisco resident Jason Stafford. “I am tired of seeing my family put in danger when we have a solution to the danger that human drivers cause.”

On the opposing end, many of the people who spoke against the expansion of autonomous vehicles said it would put jobs at risk, including drivers for traditional ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft – both based in San Francisco – as well as workers for delivery services.

Others focused on concerns about the safety and accountability of vehicles that companies like Waymo and Cruise allow to navigate the city.

“I encourage you to think about the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, and to think that Cruise is currently rolling out delivery vehicles that they call driverless delivery with the express intent of replacing delivery drivers, long-haul truckers and affecting the livelihood of millions of American families and working people,” city resident Graham Isom said.

The verdict expands how Waymo and Cruise vehicles can operate. Before Thursday’s decision, Cruise could only charge a fare in a limited section of the city, while offering a free service covering almost all of the peninsula. Waymo did not charge a fare in San Francisco.

The resolutions permit the autonomous vehicles to operate without a human safety driver during the day or at night, throughout the entire city of San Francisco.

Updated: August 12, 2023, 5:00 AM