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San Francisco’s regulatory authorities approve the use of autonomous taxis.

On Thursday, California regulators granted authority to two competing businesses in the field of autonomous taxis, namely Cruise and Waymo, to offer their driverless car services across San Francisco at all times of the day, allowing them to charge customers for utilizing their services.

The vote, which was highly anticipated, occurred after almost six hours of public discourse from both proponents and opponents of autonomous taxis. This event took place amidst conflicts between the corporations providing robotaxi services and certain inhabitants of the hilly municipality. Concerns regarding the technology have been expressed by several stakeholders, including San Francisco first responders, city transit authorities, and local activists.

The regulatory oversight of autonomous vehicles in California is carried out by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which recently conducted a vote resulting in a 3-to-1 majority in support of granting Waymo and Cruise permission to expand their operational activities.

This implies that anyone residing in or visiting San Francisco would have the opportunity to remunerate a fee in order to avail themselves of a driverless taxi service, so introducing novel automated competition to conventional taxi and ridehail drivers.

In an official statement, Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, expressed that the issuance of the present permit signifies the authentic commencement of their commercial activities in San Francisco.

According to a statement by Drew Pusateri, a spokeswoman for Cruise, the introduction of a 24/7 driverless service is a significant achievement for the industry. This development positions Cruise to effectively compete with conventional ride-hailing services and disrupt the existing transportation system, which is deemed hazardous and inaccessible.

The results are in. What is altered?

Prior to the vote on Thursday, Cruise and Waymo were only able to provide a restricted range of services to the inhabitants of San Francisco.

Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, has the ability to implement a fare exclusively for overnight journeys taking place between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in specific areas of the city. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has the potential to implement a pricing structure exclusively for rides that involve the presence of a human driver within the car.

Currently, Cruise and Waymo have the ability to impose a fee for their autonomous transportation services, granting them unrestricted utilization of San Francisco’s roadways at all times.

During a recent public meeting, representatives from the cruise industry informed state commissioners that they allocate approximately 300 vehicles during nighttime operations and 100 vehicles during daytime operations. In contrast, Waymo representatives stated that out of their total fleet of 250 vehicles, approximately 100 are actively deployed on the road at any given moment.

Emergency personnel sound the alarm.

The autonomous ride-hailing service provided by Cruise and Waymo enables customers to solicit transportation in a manner akin to the popular ride-sharing platforms Uber and Lyft. There exists a discernible distinction, undoubtedly, whereby the automobile lacks a human operator.

The commission’s San Francisco headquarters witnessed a significant turnout of individuals from the general public, who expressed their opinions to state commissioners in brief one-minute intervals throughout the meeting. Critics have raised concerns regarding the potential for driverless automobiles to experience immobilization in traffic, so impeding the progress of emergency vehicles. Conversely, proponents of this technology have asserted that autonomous vehicles exhibit a more cautious driving behavior compared to their human counterparts.

While the final decision rested with state regulators, who postponed the vote on two occasions, local leaders also voiced their opposition.

In the week preceding the first planned vote on June 29, the San Francisco Police Officers Association, San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, and the San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 corresponded with the CPUC via submitting letters. Both individuals raised worries over the potential of autonomous vehicles to hinder the response efforts of emergency personnel.

In a statement made in June, Tracy McCray, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, expressed frustration regarding the duration it takes for an officer or any other public safety employee to engage with an autonomous vehicle. McCray emphasized that this frustration is heightened when these vehicles fail to understand instructions to move aside on the roadway, resulting in obstruction of emergency response units. McCray further emphasized that such circumstances pose an elevated level of danger, which is deemed unacceptable.

As of Wednesday, the San Francisco Fire Department has officially stated that there have been 55 documented instances in 2023 where driverless vehicles have impeded their emergency response operations.

One instance, as reported by the department on Saturday, was a Waymo vehicle positioning itself between a car engulfed in flames and a fire truck that was attempting to extinguish the fire.

Additional occurrences involve robotaxis breaching yellow tape and entering the vicinity of a shooting incident, obstructing firehouse driveways and necessitating the dispatch of a fire truck from a more distant location, so compelling firefighters to redirect their path. These incidents were reported by Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson.

Nicholson expressed in June that the responsibility of relocating their vehicle should not be imposed upon their personnel when they are engaged in responding to any of the 160,000 calls they get.

Robotaxi businesses frequently emphasize their safety records. According to the corporation, Cruise vehicle has not been engaged in any fatalities or life-threatening injuries out of a total of 3 million autonomous miles. In a February assessment of its initial one million miles driven autonomously, Waymo revealed a lack of documented injuries caused by their vehicles, with 55% of all instances of contact attributed to human drivers colliding with stationary Waymo vehicles.

According to city records, the year 2022 witnessed the highest number of traffic deaths in San Francisco since 2014. According to Cruise, their vehicles demonstrated a 54% reduction in collision rates when compared to human drivers operating in similar driving conditions.

During a recent California Public Utilities Commission meeting, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said that it had recorded nearly 600 occurrences involving autonomous vehicles since their initial deployment in San Francisco. The organization posited that the reported instances represent just a small portion of the total occurrences, attributing this to a perceived deficiency in the openness of available data.

Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, who expressed dissent in the 3-1 decision, proposed that the commission postpone the vote until they have acquired a more comprehensive comprehension of the safety implications associated with the aforementioned cars.

The obstruction of first responders in the execution of their duties should be avoided. According to Shiroma, it is important to note that the absence of an injury or fatality does not conclude the investigation. The panel requires a more comprehensive elucidation into the underlying causes of these occurrences.

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