Just as the City of San Francisco is suing the state's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) over the expansion of robotaxi permits, Alphabet-owned Waymo wants to expand its permits further to cover the Peninsula and part of Santa Clara County, as well as LA.
Waymo submitted an application last week to the PUC to expand its driverless taxi services to LA and 22 Bay Area cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. An announcement on Xitter was directed only to LA residents, but the expanded permit Waymo is seeking would allow the driverless cars to ferry San Franciscans to SFO for the first time, and would bring the driverless cars into Google/Alphabet's headquarters in Mountain View.
Airport officials at SFO confirmed that Waymo had requested permission to begin mapping the roads around the airport, for the purposes of eventual service there.
But this came a month after San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed a lawsuit, just reported on Wednesday by the Washington Post, which asks the PUC to "review" its August 2023 decision to allow Waymo and its erstwhile competitor Cruise — whose permit is currently suspended — to freely operate and expand in San Francisco.
"San Francisco believes that autonomous vehicles will be a beneficial part of our city’s future, but in the meantime, while allowing this technology to develop, we must act to protect the safety of our residents and visitors,” Chiu says in a statement. “Poor AV performance has caused serious problems on San Francisco streets, jeopardizing public safety and emergency response.”
Waymo is proceeding undeterred, however, and hoping to bring its driverless Jaguars to more parts of the Bay Area, as well as to the enormous market of Los Angeles.
"We are disappointed that [San Francisco] has chosen to appeal the CPUC’s previous decision, however, we remain confident in our ability to continue safely serving San Francisco’s visitors and residents," says Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina in a statement. "We have continually demonstrated our deep willingness and longtime commitment to work in partnership with California state regulators, S.F. city officials and first responders and continue to stand by that approach."
Chiu acknowledged in his statement that "Waymo has a superior track record to Cruise." But, he said, the companies' data reporting requirements were so minimal that the city can't assess Waymo's safety record with any clarity.
Expansion to the Peninsula could come with complications, however, given how freeway dependent many requested trips will likely be — especially where the airport is concerned. And if these robotaxis can't navigate well around firehoses and emergency vehicles, how the hell are they going to figure out the clusterfuck that is the departures curb at SFO? (Chances are they will use some central drop-off point.)
As the Chronicle reports, Waymo has been operating its driverless taxis in Arizona since 2020, but four years later they still don't go on freeways. The company just announced earlier this month that it's about to begin testing its cars on freeways in Phoenix — but it could be a while before they're rolling on 101 or 280.
Providing a safe, reliable and efficient service for our riders is key to our future success. 🤖🚘🛣️— Waymo (@Waymo) January 8, 2024
We’ll soon begin testing of our rider-only operations without a human driver on freeways in Phoenix. See how we’re safely approaching this next step: https://t.co/1hQnp2XuAL pic.twitter.com/ZAmDxUy7lT
Supervisor Aaron Peskin has already expressed his skepticism about letting Waymo go to SFO, and he's using it as a bargaining chip for more city oversight. As he told the Chronicle last fall, "I’m being very candid and straightforward about it — I’m using [SFO] as an opportunity to try to force a more collaborative relationship with Waymo. And if they take us up on it, great. And if they don’t, then I’m going to have the Board of Supervisors keep them off the airport until they do."
In the meantime, Waymo is operating as the only driverless car service in SF while Cruise begins to rebuild operations after safety and PR disasters last year — which began almost the minute they got their full operating permit here. Waymo put out a safety report in December, which said that over the 1.76 million driverless miles its cars had driven in SF, there were just 0.6 crashes per 1 million miles, compared to 5.5 crashes per 1 million miles driven by human drivers.
LA is also a massive and complicated place to map and navigate, and it seems insane for Waymo to even begin operating there unless their cars are allowed on freeways.
NBC's LA affiliate spoke to West Hollywood Mayor John Erickson of West Hollywood, who said he had not heard of any plans for the driverless taxis in his city, but he was eager to learn more.
Photo courtesy of Waymo