Cruise has been testing self-driving vehicles in The City for some time, but is now the first company to do so without a test driver at the wheel. <ins>(Shutterstock)</ins>

Cruise has been testing self-driving vehicles in The City for some time, but is now the first company to do so without a test driver at the wheel. (Shutterstock)

Five Cruise driverless vehicles deployed to the Sunset District

Local officials and advocates remain concerned about lack of regulatory power and transparency

Cruise has deployed five of its electric, autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco’s Sunset District without test drivers at the wheel, the company formally announced Wednesday.

CEO Dan Ammann called the announcement a “milestone” in the company’s efforts to deliver a fleet of driverless cars to city streets across the country.

He said Cruise will ramp up driverless testing methodically until “we’re operating everywhere and around the clock with a full fleet of our driverless autonomous vehicles.”

Eventually, the General Motors subsidiary aspires to make a commercial product that everyone can use that will “upend transportation” and make it safer, more affordable and more environmentally-friendly.

“Our goal is to make that same experience available to as many people as possible as soon and as safely as we can,” Ammann said, adding later, “so I think you can see these first driverless tests are a small and humble step toward a much bigger goal.”

Driverless vehicles aren’t exactly unusual in San Francisco, but they’ve always been equipped with a backup driver behind the wheel or riding shotgun should a quick correction need to be made.

Cruise is the first to remove that driver, having received a testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in October.

Though four other autonomous car companies — Waymo, Zoox, Nuro and AutoX — secured the same permit before Cruise, none have actually put the unmanned vehicles on the road in San Francisco.

Monday’s announcement emphasized removing the human driver as “the true benchmark of a self-driving car,” but a spokesperson told the Examiner that vehicles would actually still have a safety operator in the passenger seat “during the beginning of the use permit” until it is “eventually removed.”

The driver can bring the vehicle to a full stop but “does not have access to standard driver controls,” according to a spokesperson.

The spokesperson declined to provide details on when cars were operating or whether there were other restrictions; however the DMV permit limits the driverless vehicles to roads with posted speed limits no higher than 30 miles per hour and forbids them from testing in heavy fog or heavy rain.

From the Sunset, Cruise said it will expand neighborhood-by-neighborhood only as trust is built with the community.

City supervisors, who have no control over permitting, are skeptical.

Many already expressed concern over what they describe as Cruise’s unwillingness to engage with local government officials, citing former horror stories with other transportation technology companies such as Uber, Lyft and various scooter start-ups as reason to more closely regulate testing and other commercial activity within city limits.

“Words in a press release aren’t real community or government engagement, and if they want to use our streets as laboratories, I think they should involve our citizens and their elected representatives,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.

Such fears were bolstered when Cruise declined to appear at a hearing in front of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority on Nov. 17.

Although Cruise is under no legal obligation to report deployment or outreach details to The City, supervisors said they hoped the autonomous vehicle company would volunteer to collaborate to achieve mutually beneficial safety and equity goals, if not simply for a show of goodwill.

“Nothing has changed in the intervening weeks,” Peskin said. “I continue my entreaties to have an open process that involves the local government.”

Ammann said testing in San Francisco is critical to guaranteeing the vehicles are equipped to handle any driving environment. Cars must navigate The City’s hilly terrain, complex layout, streets shared with public transportation and high numbers of cyclists, pedestrians or other travelers using micromobility.

Cruise cars have already undergone what the company describes as extensive and “rigorous” testing, including over 2 million miles driven with backup drivers during the last five years.

They’re also outfitted with safety features such as an emergency brake, soft stop button and pullover button, as well as a remote team that monitors the cars’ movement.

Ammann described his first driverless ride as “wildly boring” in “all the right ways.”

Still, local safety advocates say they’re worried about The City’s lack of regulatory control.

“Now that autonomous vehicle companies have begun fully driverless testing in San Francisco, it is more important than ever for regulators to ensure the safety of people walking and biking in our city,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “That means robust data sharing and transparency regarding their operations as well as opportunities for the public to provide feedback.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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