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Why San Francisco Transit Wants a Slower Rollout of Driverless Taxis

As Waymo and Cruise seek to expand autonomous taxi services in San Francisco, some public agencies worry about the impacts on transit operations and emergency response.

A Waymo self-driving vehicle. In May, the California Public Utilities Commission issued draft resolutions that would allow Waymo and Cruise to “offer passenger service in [their] autonomous vehicles without a safety driver present throughout the city of San Francisco, at all hours of day or night."
In Brief:
  • The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and other public authorities are asking a California regulatory commission to slow down the expansion of autonomous taxi services.

  • Autonomous taxis have caused a range of unsafe incidents on city streets in the time that they’ve been operating.

  • Authorities worry that increased congestion could interfere with transit service at a time when agencies are trying to bring back riders.

  • Experts say public perception of autonomous vehicle safety is important to the expansion of the industry.

  • Autonomous vehicle taxi services Waymo and Cruise could soon have round-the-clock access to the streets of San Francisco.

    But a group of local authorities, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), is asking a state regulatory board to slow things down.

    In May, the California Public Utilities Commission issued draft resolutions that would allow Waymo and Cruise, both companies offering self-driving taxi services, to “offer passenger service in [their] autonomous vehicles without a safety driver present throughout the city of San Francisco, at all hours of day or night.” The companies have been operating in the city on a limited basis for months, putting years of innovation in self-driving technology to the test in real-world scenarios. But the rollout has been far from perfect, with reports of driverless vehicles holding up traffic, entering construction zones and interfering with transit.

    In two letters dated at the end of May, the SFMTA along with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and the San Francisco Planning Department cited dozens of incidents of self-driving taxis behaving erratically and interrupting traffic. And they asked the commission to require more data reporting from the two companies, and to only allow them to expand more gradually, as they achieve certain benchmarks related to safe performance. The stakes are high for all of San Francisco’s street users, and especially for public transit, says Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for the SFMTA.

    “San Francisco streets can handle a fair amount of chaos,” Tumlin says. “But there’s a limit.”

    Monitoring Impacts to Streets and Transit

    The SFMTA runs subway, bus and streetcar service while also overseeing all of San Francisco’s street transportation, including biking, walking and parking infrastructure. In addition to all those modes, the city also “happens to be the most concentrated urban testing site for autonomous vehicles anywhere in the world,” Tumlin says. It’s likely that one day, autonomous vehicles will be considered safer than human drivers, he says. But in the meantime, the rollout of Waymo and Cruise on San Francisco streets has created “a broad array of unintended negative consequences.”

    Those include things like unplanned stops in roadways, driving in transit-only lanes, interfering with emergency response vehicles, causing other vehicles to collide and intruding into active crime scenes, according to the city’s letters to the Public Utilities Commission. Autonomous vehicle technology also hasn’t quite perfected parallel parking in an urban context, so AV taxis do most of their passenger pickups and drop-offs in traffic lanes, Tumlin says. A Waymo car recently struck and killed a dog.

    “This is resulting in significant delays to all forms of transportation, especially transit and emergency-vehicle response, and that delay is increasing rapidly,” Tumlin says.

    The stakes for public transit are especially high at the moment, as the SFMTA and other Bay Area transit agencies struggle to stay afloat financially after losing riders en masse during the pandemic. California transit agencies have asked the state to step in and provide billions in funding to help them survive the next few years, but so far Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t made any commitments amid big anticipated budget deficits. In the meantime, Tumlin says, autonomous taxis are exacerbating street congestion, much like Uber and Lyft have done. Worsening congestion makes transit less reliable and could push more riders away.

    The SFMTA and other local authorities believe Waymo, Cruise and other autonomous taxi services should be expanded according to a “stage-gate process” — with greater freedom to operate as they prove higher levels of safety and reliability — rather than getting blanket permission to operate around the clock.

    “We’re glad to see autonomous vehicle testing in San Francisco and we believe that in the future AVs may be safer than human drivers, but in the meantime we need data to demonstrate their safety performance,” Tumlin says.

    Stakes for Broader Adoption of Autonomous Vehicles

    How AV services are regulated in San Francisco could have broader implications, too. Tech startups are often under intense pressure to raise venture capital funds, partly by showing expansion, Tumlin says. It’s up to regulatory agencies to prevent a “race to the bottom” in the industry in terms of operational safety, he says.

    Public perception of autonomous vehicle safety has a big influence on how the industry evolves, says Kathleen Rizk, senior director of user experience benchmarking and technology at J.D. Power. And “confidence hasn’t really grown much for AVs over the last few years,” Rizk says.

    According to the 2022 J.D. Power Mobility Confidence Index Study, a survey created in collaboration with PAVE and MIT Advanced Vehicle Technology (AVT) Consortium, consumer confidence in AV tech has actually dipped recently.

    Companies like Waymo and Cruise need to test their services in real-world conditions on real streets. But “not everyone wants to be part of a test city,” Rizk says. As part of an upcoming study, J.D. Power is surveying both users of Waymo and Cruise services and other street users in San Francisco, to get a better sense of how ready people are to accept self-driving vehicles as an everyday part of the street.

    There’s a growing realization that AVs should be seen as substantially safer than human drivers before widespread adoption of the technology occurs, says Marjory Blumenthal, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Federal regulations have largely focused on a vehicle’s crashworthiness and ability to protect its occupants. But those things don’t measure how a driver’s behavior — or a machine’s behavior — impacts the flow of traffic on a street.

    “We’re still trying to figure out, do these vehicles adequately recognize emergency vehicles? Do they recognize a policeman in the street? Do they recognize a wheelchair? All of those issues play out at the city level,” Blumenthal says.

    Autonomous vehicles are being tested and deployed in all types of scenarios, not just for taxi services in dense urban areas. But the evolution of Waymo and Cruise in San Francisco could have ramifications for the broader industry, says Tejas Santanam, a research engineer at Beep Inc., which works with public transit agencies and campuses to run autonomous shuttles.

    When Uber and Lyft were expanding in the early years, they built an “adversarial” relationship with regulators that damaged their reputations, Santanam says. Autonomous-vehicle services should take a different tack, he says, working with public agencies to address their needs instead of treating them as obstacles.

    “You have to go about it with a certain amount of intentionality so you don’t alienate cities and transit agencies who you need on your side, regulatorily, but do so in a way that builds up positive public opinion,” he says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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