The California Public Utilities Commission voted 3-1 on Thursday night, after over seven hours of public comment, to approve the expansion of robotaxi service in San Francisco to 24 hours — and approved both Cruise and Waymo to take paid fares at all hours.
"While we do not yet have the data to judge AVs against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” said Commissioner John Reynolds prior to the vote. As SFist has noted previously, Reynolds is a former managing counsel for Cruise, and he bucked calls that he should recuse himself from Thursday's vote. Reynolds was appointed to the commission by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021.
Also voting in the majority, as the Chronicle reports, were Commission President Alice Reynolds and Commissioner Darcie Houck. The sole "no" vote was from Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, and the fifth commissioner, Karen Douglas, was absent.
"A broad range of opinions have been presented to us by the public regarding the resolutions before us today,” Houck said, per The Verge. “I do not take this decision lightly." Houck told Cruise and Waymo that their permits could still be revoked if they did not quickly address concerns raised by the public and city officials.
"This is an incremental approval,” said Commissioner Alice Reynolds, per the Chronicle. "It builds on existing approvals, and it’s not the last action the CPUC or the DMV will be taking in regulating these vehicles."
It's good to know it's not the last action, but the vote will come as a disappointment to some city officials — and especially SF Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson and the dozens of firefighters and police who addressed the commission in a special session on Monday, expressing concerns about public safety after dozens of incidents involving stalled or misbehaving robotaxis. Nicholson said pointedly that it is not the job of firefighters "to babysit" autonomous vehicles that get in the way of public safety.
Before her "no" vote, as the Chronicle reports, Shiroma said that the data coming from Cruise and Waymo was not "granular" enough, and, "Because of this insufficient record," she said approving the expansion Thursday was "premature.
Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said in a statement that the vote was "a huge milestone for the AV industry, but even more importantly a signal to the country that CA prioritizes progress over our tragic status quo."
And Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said, "Today’s permit marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco."
Thursday's vote is likely to be looked back upon as a pivotal moment in the race to bring autonomous cars into the mainstream, both locally and nationally. (Remember, way back seven years ago, when former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stuck up a middle finger at regulators and rolled out Uber's self-driving cars on SF streets without getting any permits?) San Francisco is the first major city to see these vehicles out picking up passengers, and now they will be out in force, in larger numbers, picking up passengers for paid fares at all hours.
Until now, Waymo has been only offering free rides to a pre-approved list of beta testers, while Cruise has been relegated to a certain section of the northwestern part of the city, taking paid fares only after 10 p.m.
The vote is also a huge victory for the tech and automotive companies that have invested billions so far to bring this technology to market, including Alphabet, which launched Waymo over a decade ago, in 2009; and GM, which owns Cruise. There are also dozens more companies hoping to eventually get into the market, in San Francisco and elsewhere.
As the Chronicle notes, many compared this moment to the approvals the CPUC gave to Uber and Lyft over a decade ago — moves that were broadly detrimental to the taxi industry, which this vote will certainly be as well.
As one speaker at Thursday's meeting put it, this vote is just another step toward automating humans out of an industry.
"The CPUC looked the other way on Uber and Lyft,” said SF resident Charles Minster, per the Chron. "All these companies care about are profits. Eliminating human beings means nothing to them. It means less problems. Because as humans, we have to eat, we get sick, we go on strike every once in a while. They don’t like that."