San Francisco is getting cold feet about self-driving car tests

San Francisco officials have called for a slower, more considered expansion of the use of autonomous vehicles, which have blocked traffic and hampered emergency services


31 January 2023

A Cruise vehicle in San Francisco

Cruise is offering free rides in its driverless cars to non-employees in San Francisco

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Officials in San Francisco have asked for a halt to the expansion of driverless car tests across the city after a series of incidents that have hampered the work of emergency services.

San Francisco’s position at the heart of Silicon Valley and its wealth of technology talent has made it a hotbed for the driverless car industry. Both Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Cruise, owned by General Motors, operate experimental robotic taxi services in the city. But they haven’t been without problems.

New Scientist has previously reported how autonomous vehicles (AV) from Cruise, for example, have randomly stopped and blocked traffic and had a run-in with police. But details of other incidents with driverless cars have now emerged in letters from city officials.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) has written to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) saying that managers in the City’s Department of Emergency Management began to notice a number of 911 calls last year from people who had seen such cars stop without reason and block traffic, as well as “erratic driving”, such as indicating in one direction and moving in the other.

These unexpected stops on busy streets range from minutes to hours, says one of the letters, giving an example of a Cruise car that reportedly stopped and blocked a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle on its way to a fire. In another incident, a Cruise car entered an area where firefighters were working and nearly ran over their hoses – it only stopped when firefighters shattered the front window of the vehicle.

Both Cruise and Waymo currently operate small fleets between the hours of 10pm and 6am in a confined area of San Francisco, but each has applied for permission to spread further across the city and operate more cars 24 hours a day.

The SFCTA has now written separate letters to the CPUC about both Cruise’s and Waymo’s expansion plans and called for “restraint… rather than rapid expansion”.

“Cruise AVs have made unplanned and unexpected stops in travel lanes where they obstruct traffic and transit service, and intruding into active emergency response scenes,” says the letter about Cruise. “If the Commission approves sweeping authorizations for both Waymo and Cruise, the hazards and network impacts… could soon affect a large percentage of all San Francisco travelers.”

Neither Cruise nor Waymo responded to a request for comment by New Scientist. However, in a statement, Cruise has emphasised that its safety record “includes having driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities”. A Waymo spokesperson has said that the letters aere “a standard part of the regulatory process” and the company would continue its “healthy dialogue” with city officials.

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Source link San Francisco, one of America’s most technologically advanced cities, has been skeptical of having autonomous cars test on its roads and is reportedly giving the self-driving car industry the cold shoulder.

An analysis of San Francisco’s sentiment towards the driverless car industry recently revealed that the city is extremely wary of the technology and its implications. There have been multiple reports of law enforcement officers asking the teams testing the autonomous cars to leave Polian, who runs the Autonomous Vehicle Consortium, revealing that the “city of San Francisco…is not too enthusiastic about autonomous vehicles on the streets.”

City officials have raised numerous concerns about the safety of the technology, including worries about the precision of the sensors and cameras, as well as its ability to effectively detect obstacles during adverse weather conditions. One of the biggest concerns, however, is the possibility of autonomous vehicles to cause accidents.

Although some cities, such as San Jose, Alameda, and Sunnyvale, have welcomed self-driving tests with open arms, San Francisco is yet to follow suit. The Mayor’s Office of Innovation, which is responsible for developing strategies to strengthen the city’s economy and improve its safety, has been pushing for autonomous testing to be met with strict regulations.

However, the skeptics in the city don’t seem to be convinced. A Human-Centered AI Symposium was recently held at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, with much of the discussion focusing on how to develop transparent policies and regulations to protect the public from autonomous vehicles.

Although San Francisco has been reluctant to adopt autonomous car testing, two leading companies in the industry have recently announced their intentions to begin doing so there. Waymo and Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group both intend to conduct self-driving tests on San Francisco streets, but only if the city is comfortable with the safety regulations imposed upon them.

It is clear that San Francisco has reservations about putting driverless cars on its roads and is currently in the process of developing a framework of rules to ensure the safety of its residents. Although the city’s attitude may be cold towards the driverless car industry for now, it is likely to warm up if the technological advancements of the field can be proven safe.

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