How San Francisco became an autonomous vehicle test course

The City may have more AVs than any other city in the world

A couple of friends and I were out for a walk at about 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day when a Waymo self-driving car came rolling down 16th Street. Then came another, and then another, and another. We stared in disbelief as at least a dozen tricked-out SUVs glided by, silent but for the whirring of their lidar sensors.

Perhaps these four-wheeled robots had just come from a New Year’s party of their own.

While a motorcade’s worth of autonomous vehicles remains an unusual sight, a self-driving car can be seen every minute or two in some parts of San Francisco. A growing number of these vehicles are now transporting passengers in fully autonomous mode, meaning there’s no backup driver behind the wheel.

San Francisco is the epicenter of autonomous vehicle testing in California, if not the world, where subsidiaries of leading companies — Google, General Motors and Amazon — teach their fleets the subtleties of city driving. If an autonomous vehicle (AV) can handle the chaotic conditions on the streets of San Francisco, these companies believe, it can handle just about anything.

Yet AVs remain something of a mystery to the general public — and not just because of their incredible technological capabilities. Basic information — like how many AVs are being tested in San Francisco, where exactly they are permitted to travel without a backup driver and other details of their operation — is difficult to find or unavailable to the public.

An Examiner investigation, consisting of public records requests, data searches and interviews with regulators and AV companies bears out what’s obvious to city residents: The streets of San Francisco have become a giant, photogenic AV test course where this technology will show its promise and perils in real time.

AV capital

In a fast-moving field, where companies fiercely protect trade secrets, precise data on autonomous vehicle testing and deployment can be difficult to come by. However, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has made some educated guesses.

“It’s possible that there has been more automated driving on S.F. streets than in any other major city in the world,” said Julia Friedlander, senior manager for autonomous vehicles at SFMTA.

While 50 companies are registered to test autonomous vehicles in California, just two companies, both of which primarily test their vehicles in San Francisco, accounted for more than 75% of the 4.1 million miles traveled by autonomous vehicles in the state last year, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Waymo, a Google subsidiary, notched more than 2.3 million miles in 567 vehicles in 2021, the majority of which took place in San Francisco, the company confirmed. Cruise, a subsidiary of GM, recorded 876,000 miles of autonomous driving in 168 vehicles last year, all in San Francisco. Both companies do drivered and driverless vehicle testing, and offer limited driverless passenger ride-hail services.

Zoox, an Amazon subsidiary that tests in San Francisco as well as on the Peninsula, added 155,000 miles in 57 vehicles.

It’s no surprise San Francisco, with its proximity to Silicon Valley, its varied geography and its (relatively) mild weather, would become a popular place to test AVs.

“We developed our vehicle in one of the most complex environments possible — San Francisco — to ensure that our vehicle can drive safely in even the most unpredictable circumstances and conditions,” Cruise wrote in a permit application obtained by The Examiner.

San Francisco also has value from a branding perspective. Its breathtaking views and unbelievably steep streets — the backdrop for so many movie car chases — figure prominently in the marketing materials for all three major AV companies testing in The City.

No city oversight

Even though a large majority of AV testing in the state takes place in San Francisco, The City essentially has no oversight over these companies’ operations. That responsibility falls to the state DMV, which regulates AV testing, and the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates commercial operations such as Cruise and Waymo’s ride-hail services.

The DMV and CPUC do not require AV companies to disclose where their vehicles have traveled within California, meaning it’s impossible to know the exact extent to which their operations are concentrated in San Francisco.

State regulations have been a source of contention for SFMTA, which is accustomed to exercising broad regulatory power over The City’s streets, and sharing transportation data with the public. Over the past several years, the agency and other city departments have regularly submitted comments to the DMV and CPUC as they craft autonomous vehicle regulations.

The City has unsuccessfully fought for caps on the number of AVs deployed for ride-hailing services, detailed origin and destination data to better manage traffic and universal wheelchair accessibility, among other policies.

SFMTA’s lobbying has been directly informed by its experience with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which it says have undermined public transit and increased congestion. The agency is continuing to fight for state regulations that require disability access, safe pickup and drop off practices, and zero-emissions electric vehicles, Friedlander said. (Currently, Zoox vehicles and some Waymo vehicles are gas-powered.)

“AV companies and state regulators need to see cities as key stakeholders and work with us to maximize the benefits while minimizing the negative effects that could come from adding multiple new fleets of cars to San Francisco roads,” Friedlander said.

While he agrees with many of these concerns, Marcel Moran, a PhD candidate in urban planning at UC Berkeley who has studied AV policy, thinks the solutions already are clear.

“I can understand the rationale for wanting more information. But there’s also policy decisions that would make a difference regardless of vehicle type,” Moran said, citing examples like congestion pricing and transit-only lanes.

Situation on the streets

It’s only natural that AVs, with their bulky rooftop rigs, conspicuous branding and awe-inspiring technological promise, would attract extra attention from the public. They’ve also been observed behaving strangely: Consider the 50 Waymos per day that continually returned to a Richmond cul de sac last fall, or the platoon of Waymos I observed cruising the Castro in the early hours of 2022.

Waymo vehicles, mostly electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs as well as some gas-powered Chrysler Pacifica minivans, go on different missions throughout The City to train the Waymo Driver, its proprietary artificial intelligence, in different environments, a company spokesperson said. The vehicles sometimes travel in groups back to base after a shift.

Cruise, which uses modified electric Chevy Bolts with nicknames like Poppy and Tostada, also drive around The City to practice certain driving skills and to more accurately map the urban environment, a company spokesperson said. Cruise vehicles can learn 40 times more quickly in San Francisco than in a more suburban environment like the Phoenix area, another location where both Cruise and Waymo test their vehicles.

AV companies approved for testing with a backup driver can travel almost anywhere in California. However, driverless commercial operations have a more limited geography. Cruise’s operational domain for its free, late-night ride-hail service (available only to a select few members of the public) covers parts of the Richmond, Sunset and Fillmore, and only includes streets with a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or less. Cruise plans to expand its operational domain to encompass 70% of The City in the near future, a spokesperson said.

Waymo redacted its operational domain for driverless passenger service from documents sent to SFMTA, following approval from the CPUC, citing proprietary trade secrets. The company also declined to share its operational domain with The Examiner. Waymo’s vehicles are approved to drive themselves at speeds of up 65 miles per hour, and are currently providing driverless rides to employees in a portion of San Francisco.

With truly driverless cars now circulating The City, locals might wonder what would happen if these vehicles are involved in an accident, or get pulled over by the police.

It turns out, there’s a plan for that.

In their state-mandated “law enforcement interaction plans,” Cruise and Waymo explain how law enforcement officers can enter their vehicles and find the registration, and how first responders should act in all manner of unfortunate situations (a vehicle underwater, on fire, etc.) The companies also detail their cybersecurity efforts to prevent hackers from — in the absolute worst case — hijacking their fleets.

Regulatory frontiers

California regulators and the AV companies themselves have been forced to navigate these sci-fi scenarios in the absence of federal regulation. During the Trump Administration, when “regulations were considered evil,” the already slow process of regulating AVs was put on pause, says Steve Shladover, a research engineer at Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology at UC Berkeley, and an AV consultant for the DMV.

“In an ideal world, the federal government would have stepped out earlier and would have taken the lead on (regulations), but that didn’t happen,” Shladover said, adding that the Biden Administration has restarted the process of crafting AV regulations.

In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new rules to ensure custom-built AVs, including the pod-like vehicles that are being developed by Cruise and Zoox, are subject to rigorous safety standards.

California’s regulations could use some work, as well. Current data reporting “only gives a very limited view of the maturity of the technology,” Shladover said. “I believe that there will need to be disclosure of a lot more information about the way the systems are designed and developed and about their performance.”

California regulations require AV companies report every collision and every “disengagement,” when a human backup driver has to take over for the computer. The latter requirements need to be more precise and consistent, Shladover said.

Protecting proprietary trade secrets and ensuring safe operations is “a very difficult balancing act” that might demand new layers of separation between publicly accessible information and information accessible only to regulators, Shladover said. In a test of these boundaries, Waymo in January sued the DMV to block it from responding to a public records request for more detailed data on collisions, disengagements and Waymo’s operational domain in San Francisco.

The stakes of this technological arms race could not be higher. Some of the world’s biggest companies are plowing billions of dollars into this technology, hoping for a revolution in freight and passenger transport. AVs, which are never distracted and are programmed to follow the rules of the road, could provide huge safety benefits in a country where cars kill 40,000 people per year, and represent the leading cause of death for teenagers.

But the industry also has sparked fear in labor groups worried about robo-drivers taking their jobs, environmentalists worried about massive increases in driving and emissions, and city governments hoping to prevent gridlock.

Today, the impact of AVs on the roads is a San Francisco story. But at some point in the future, the rest of the country and world will have to reckon with this new technology.

A map of areas where Cruise’s fully driverless vehicles provide late-night ride-hail service. (SFMTA)

A map of areas where Cruise’s fully driverless vehicles provide late-night ride-hail service. (SFMTA)

A Cruise autonomous vehicle sits in traffic. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

A Cruise autonomous vehicle sits in traffic. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Amazon’s Zoox lags behind in testing miles, though it is working to roll out a new pod-like vehicle. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Amazon’s Zoox lags behind in testing miles, though it is working to roll out a new pod-like vehicle. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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