Mayor calls on self-driving car companies to agree to voluntary SF safety tests

Mayor Mark Farrell is calling on the 50 companies experimenting with self-driving cars in California to prove their technology is safe in San Francisco.

The mayor on Wednesday sent a letter urging those companies to volunteer for local safety assessments with the San Francisco Police Department and other city agencies, in an effort to ensure the safety of San Franciscans.

Importantly, The City of San Francisco has no regulatory control over self-driving vehicles, which are governed by the CA Department of Motor Vehicles and California Public Utilities Commission.

“Bottom line is, we have zero control over the regulations,” Farrell told the San Francisco Examiner Wednesday. “My first job as mayor of San Francisco is to look out for the safety of our residents. Full stop.”

Those so-called robot cars are expected to roll down The City’s streets April 2 without a driver behind the wheel, following state approval earlier this month of California DMV safety regulations. The regulations require those vehicles to be monitored remotely.

Farrell is concerned safety personnel in The City may not know how to best respond to incidents like traffic collisions involving self-driving vehicles without the aid of autonomous vehicle companies.

“If an accident happens, if a car stalls on the road, we as a city need to know how” to deal with that, Farrell said.

Farrell’s letter expresses support for automated vehicles, but requests a local safety assessment process that would include table-top training exercises given by a representative from the automated vehicle company, a “tour” of the self-driving vehicles to understand how they work, and demonstrations showing how the vehicles operates in various environments — including parts of The City rife with congestion.

CA DMV regulations do require self-driving vehicle manufacturers provide a copy of a “law enforcement interaction plan” to first responders, which includes written material instructing agencies how to interact with the vehicle “in emergency and traffic enforcement situations.”

Uber confirmed they are in talks with The Mayor’s Office but would not yet comment on whether they would commit to Farrell’s request. Representatives for Lyft and Waymo, the Google-led self-driving car initiative, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

John Simpson, an advocate with the Southern California-based group Consumer Watchdog, has long voiced the need for tighter self-driving vehicle safety regulations.

“I think the mayor is doing exactly what he should be doing,” Simpson said.

Simpson said local municipalities — not the state — have more detailed ideas of which streets would be most dangerous for driverless cars to operate on, and where they may more safely deploy.

“They’re using our public roads as their private laboratories,” he said. “ You might get a company proposing something absolutely crazy, running cars by a school right when parents will be dropping their kids off.”

Farrell agreed with that view. But, he said, “Until that happens I’m going to take every step possible to get these organizations to work voluntarily with San Francisco.”

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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