In light of 92 incidents in seven months of self-driving Cruise and Waymo cars stopping, idling, and causing havoc on San Francisco streets, the SF County Transportation Authority is asking the state to hold off on giving them more expanded permits.
We’ve detailed a number eerie misadventures with self-driving cars since these things started going fully driverless over the summer of '22, but we didn’t realize how frequent these incidents really are, nor their full extent. It was well-publicized in July when 60 Cruise robotaxis just plain stopped in the street and blocked traffic. But a new report form Wired informs us of a number of additional scary incidents that self-driving car companies Cruise and Waymo had successfully swept under the rug: SF firefighters having to shatter the window of a driverless Cruise because it was running over their hoses at an active fire scene, and false 911 calls the cars’ systems made when the passenger had merely fallen asleep.
According to the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), there have been “92 unique incidents reported to the City between May 29, and December 31, 2022” of such self-driving car mishaps. NBC News reports that SFCTA is asking the state to stop expanding self-driving car permits, for the time being, at least, as this technology may not be as ready for prime-time as Waymo, Cruise, and their eager-to-expand investors think it is.
The problem for San Francisco authorities is they don’t really have much regulatory power here, the permits are issued by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), not the city. Waymo is currently permitted to offer driverless rides but cannot yet charge for them, Cruise is able to charge for them, and is now asking for a permit to expand citywide to “the entire 7x7 of San Francisco,” rather than certain limited parts of the city.
The SFCTA sent the state a protest letter against the Cruise permit, as well as a similar protest letter against the Waymo permit request. “If the Commission approves sweeping authorizations for both Waymo and Cruise, the hazards and network impacts caused by planned and unplanned AV stops that obstruct traffic could soon affect a large percentage of all San Francisco travelers,” the letter says. “In light of the record since the Initial Approval, San Francisco recommends that further restraint and demonstrated improved performance, rather than rapid expansion of geographic area and service hours at Cruise’s discretion.”
The map above details the 92 incidents in seven months, and where they happened. The Chronicle has an interactive map of self-driving car snafus, including one September incident where “A Cruise vehicle entered a bus lane, stopped next to a Muni bus near the intersection of O’Farrell and Franklin streets and blocked traffic for 21 minutes,” and another the very next day where “Five Cruise autonomous vehicles blocked southbound Mission Street just north of the intersection with 29th Street,” and “Traffic was stopped for at least 13 minutes.”
KRON4 reported that the day of that first incident, there were three separate Cruise stoppages, including one the self-driving car was “blocking Sacramento at Mason,” and “the car was playing tunes but no one was inside.”
There are also details from the Chronicle about a freaky incident that happened during a residential fire near Alamo Square two Sundays ago. While the fire was blazing and SFFD were on the scene, an errant driverless Cruise vehicle drove up on firefighters, over a fire hose, and wouldn't respond to their waving at it to stop. Per the Chron, "Firefighters at the scene stood in front of the car to try to get it to stop, but the autonomous vehicle came to a halt only after one of them smashed the Cruise car’s front window amid the chaotic effort to put out a fire that displaced 25 people."
A San Francisco Story: while driving a colleague home from work we stumbled upon a @Cruise self-driving car no longer self-driving. It was blocking Sacramento at Mason. “Jasper” the car was playing tunes but no one was inside. @SFMTA_Muni bus had to reroute. pic.twitter.com/NYYdeRmNPD— Dan Thorn (@DanThorn_) September 23, 2022
NBC News puts it diplomatically: “Neither vehicles from Cruise or Waymo have killed anyone on the streets of San Francisco, but the companies need to overcome their sometimes comical errors.”
Cruise says in a statement to NBC News that “Cruise’s safety record is publicly reported and includes having driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities.”
Waymo, for their part, said of the letter that “These letters are a standard part of the regulatory process, and we have long appreciated a healthy dialogue with city officials and government agencies in California,” The Chronicle adds that Waymo will submit a response letter to the CPUC this week
Bizarrely, Cruise and Waymo are not required to report these incidents. So as this experiment plays out on our public streets, we largely only find out about these robot car mishaps when someone posts them on social media. The SFCTA hopes to change that, but thus far, they’re hitting a dead end.
Image: @TaylorOgan via Twitter