Editorial: Cities need a say in robotaxi expansions

Self-driving technology holds potential to bring safety and equity benefits to transportation. But a rollout that considers all stakeholders is critical to that long-term success.

This month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved substantial expansions of self-driving technology companies Cruise and Waymo’s commercial services throughout San Francisco — despite objections from the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency and emergency responders. They cautioned that an increase in robotaxis could lead to more congestion and more emergency interference. San Francisco officials later filed a motion to pause the commission’s approval.

Their point was made about a week later when a Cruise autonomous vehicle crashed into a San Francisco Fire Department truck. The firetruck was responding to an emergency with illuminated lights and activated siren — which would make a human driver stop or change course. The Cruise vehicle entered the intersection on a green light and collided with the truck.

California regulates AVs at the state level, rather than the city. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles oversees AVs operating on public roadways, while the California Public Utilities Commission regulates their commercial activities.

The mismatch puts the city and the state in a tug of war. They should aim to strike a balance between the city’s responsibility to consider residents’ day-to-day activities and the state’s responsibility to foster business-friendly regulations that bring new companies and emerging technology into California. But it’s unfair for residents and city workers to be constant test subjects along the way.

One day after the commission’s approval, as many as 10 Cruise vehicles stopped in the middle of the road in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood because of wireless connectivity issues. The connection lapse happened because of high attendance at a music festival, media reports said.

Sources told Automotive News this month that San Francisco officials have no grounds to enforce rules when it comes to AVs. State lawmakers are relatively removed from such issues, while the city bears the brunt in real time.

Refining the technology that may someday dominate the nation’s roads is essential, but so is the consideration and the involvement of today’s stakeholders.

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