The Battle Over Autonomous Vehicles in San Francisco
Technology Policy Brief #95 | By: Mindy Spatt | August 21, 2023
Photo taken from: www.wired.com/
Waymo and Cruise autonomous vehicles (AVs) have become ubiquitous in some parts of San Francisco and seem to arouse strong feelings wherever they go. So much so that a proposal by the California Public Utilities Commission to allow them to begin charging for rides in San Francisco motivated hundreds to attend the meeting or call in to make public comment. The Commission voted 3 to 1 to approve the AV companys’ application.
Much of the public comment came from people with ties to either the two autonomous car companies or Lyft/Uber. A group of “gig workers” in matching shirts begged the Commission not to let the AVs cut into their desperately needed business. That must have seemed ironic to the taxi drivers who spoke at the meeting and made those same arguments several years ago when the Commission authorized Lyft and Uber to operate over their objections. The gig workers’ argument was counteracted by SEIU local 87, which said Cruise and Waymo would bring actual jobs, with decent pay and benefits, to some of their 3,000 unemployed members.
Handicapped organizations pointed out that Cruise (owned by General Motors) and Waymo (owned by Alphabet) couldn’t yet accommodate wheelchairs, with Lyft and Uber drivers insisting they always, always assisted customers in need. Several leading organizations for the blind offered a different perspective, complaining that drivers were put off by their blindness and often refused to accommodate their dogs. Autonomous Vehicles wouldn’t have that problem, and the technology holds enormous promise for handicapped people.
Since the issue the Commission was voting on was whether the AVs, already allowed to operate on the roads, could offer paid rides, comparisons to Lyft/Uber were inevitable, and outside of the wheelchair issue no one spoke up for the companies from a passenger perspective. Several callers expressed concerns about the high levels of sexual assault and harassment for women in Lyft and Uber cars, problems that would be absent in a driverless car. But women aren’t the only ones who feel fearful in a Lyft or Uber. One caller described getting into cars with drivers who are often “either stoned, drunk, texting or talking.” A representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving pointed out that despite the groups’ advocacy drunk driving is still a leading cause of death on our roads.
Ties to either side were so apparent that some callers felt the need to preface their comments by saying they were independent of Lyft, Uber, Waymo and Cruise. The callers that rang the truest to me were the bicycle riders. I’m a cyclist and their comments mirrored my experience on San Francisco’s increasingly dangerous streets. “Being almost killed by a driver who is either distracted or speeding is a daily occurrence,” said one. “Cruise and Waymo have never done that.” Another cyclist explained that Cruise and Waymo program their vehicles to obey California’s little known “Three Feet for Safety Law” that requires drivers to leave 3 feet of space when passing a bicycle.
A further irony to the debate is that the rideshare companies have made no secret of their own goal of eventually getting rid of drivers and moving to AVs themselves. Even when that happens they’ll still be just be a small percentage of total vehicles on the road and won’t lessen fears of pedestrians and cyclists who face life and death danger from people-driven cars. As one caller succinctly put it “we should ban human drivers.”
- Uber’s first ever safety report discloses 3,045 sexual assaults and nine murders in the US last year By Nick Statt, Dec 5, 2019 https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/5/20997939/uber-safety-report-2018-sexual-assault-ride-hailing-platform-stats
- SF City Attorney Files Motion to Halt Roll-Out of More Self-Driving Cruise and Waymo Robotaxis, By Joe Kukara, Aug. 17, 2023 https://sfist.com/2023/08/17/sf-city-attorney-files-motion-to-halt-roll-out-of-more-self-driving-cruise-and-waymo-robotaxis/