SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A California state board will decide on Aug. 10 on whether to allow tech firms Waymo and Cruise to expand their driverless taxi fleets in San Francisco, but the stakes are much higher than local politics.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) vote is shaping up to be a referendum on a variety of technology-related topics, including the politics of artificial intelligence and the human workforce affected by technology’s rapid development.
If the commission agrees, hundreds of self-driving taxis might soon be available for public hire 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Tech executives, labor unions, transit activists, city officials, and robotaxi consumers are all frantically lobbying the board’s five appointed members, laying the stage for a state-by-state struggle over self-driving vehicles and trucks.
“This is going to be the only chance for the CPUC to get this right,” said Mike Di Bene, a local truck driver and member of the Teamsters, one of the unions urging the state to put a stop to self-driving vehicles like cabs and big-rig trucks.
Self-driving taxis have become the newest battleground in San Francisco’s confrontation between the city’s wealthy, assertive technologists and the anti-corporate, progressive alliance that wields significant political power.
While Cruise and Waymo have courted locals with gestures such as sponsorships of the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco Marathon, the city’s transportation bureau is adamantly opposed to the development, citing traffic and other difficulties. Some opponents have even used a guerilla street technique, placing traffic cones on the hoods of automobiles to confuse and stop the software.
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In many ways, the fight is a microcosm of all the delicate problems that AI is posing across the business, such as how quickly will change occur. What will happen to workers whose jobs are taken over by robots?
Cruise and Waymo have spent years conducting pilot projects in several cities and are expecting significant changes as a result of the commission’s decision. Cruise, which is majority-owned by General Motors, plans to extend its late-night taxi service in San Francisco, starting with 100 vehicles. Waymo, which is owned by Google, wishes to pick up paying passengers in the city for the first time. It stated that it does not have a specific number of vehicles in mind, only that hundreds are now being tested in San Francisco, and that it intends to roll out the paid service gradually.
Both want to be operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a potentially significant change for San Francisco’s streets and a potential showcase for what AI can and cannot achieve.
The financial pressure is on. According to GM’s earnings report, Cruise lost $611 million in the second quarter of this year, or over $7 million each day. Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company, does not publish Waymo’s financials, but it has laid off employees this year and recently scaled back its self-driving trucking effort, claiming it was concentrating down on autonomous passenger cars.
Freight trucks will not be affected by next week’s vote, but they face a parallel threat: A bill in the California Legislature would require a safety driver to be present at all times in an autonomous big rig. Last month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed spoke in support of the bill during a Teamsters demonstration.
If Waymo and Cruise fail next week, some in the tech world fear they may leave or pull back their operations in San Francisco, undermining the city’s position as the core of AI technology. Robotaxis is one of the most visible examples of AI, employing technology similar to that used by the viral chatbot ChatGPT.
“Cruise and Waymo are both Bay Area-founded companies with large offices in San Francisco,” said Lee Edwards, a tech investor and social media advocate for self-driving cars. “Perhaps they just move to a different city,” he speculated.
Both companies have offices in other cities, such as Austin and Phoenix.
Although Edwards’ business, Root VC, invests in an autonomous-trucking startup, he has not invested in Cruise or Waymo. He supports autonomous taxis because there are so many traffic fatalities involving human drivers — 43,000 nationwide in 2021, a 15-year high — and he believes AI systems are safer.
Self-driving cars are notorious for being extremely cautious, respecting speed limits and stopping at stop signs — so much so that some human drivers dislike sharing the road with them.
“The only thing you can complain about with a Waymo is that it drives like a nerd,” Edwards remarked, implying that robotaxis adheres to rules when human drivers may break them.
The arguments in favor and against robotaxis are complicated. Proponents point to potential safety benefits and the convenience of not driving, which includes some disabled individuals. Opponents claim the technology is unproven and makes too many mistakes, such as stopping at inconvenient times and blocking city buses or emergency vehicles.
A YouTube video being circulated in the tech world tries to unite the tech community behind the cause of robotaxis. Garry Tan, the founder of Y Combinator, a prominent incubator for tech businesses, created it for Cruise in its early phases. He believes the vote next week will be a litmus test for California’s commitment to innovation.
San Francisco is far from meeting its objective of eliminating traffic deaths, and human drivers are virtually always at fault when they collide with a driverless car like a Cruise or Waymo.
According to Dylan Fabris, community, and policy manager for the advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders, robotaxis are a diversion from what should be the focus in a congested city: getting people out of vehicles and onto buses, trains, bicycles, and their own two feet.
“Right now, we need to increase transit ridership — for the environment and for creating a city that’s actually pleasant to live in,” he said. “We don’t need to add more cars to the mix.”
Robotaxis supporters have made no secret of their desire to replace public transportation systems, and they have a plan in place: According to a 2021 study published in the journal iScience, once Uber and Lyft became available, persons with high incomes and those without children used public transportation less.