Cruise, a driverless car company owned by General Motors that recently began testing unmanned autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, snubbed an invitation to attend a hearing in front of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Tuesday, triggering frustration from officials at the lack of local influence over autonomous vehicle companies’ operations within city limits.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the company’s refusal to appear “unfortunate,” saying he had hoped it would be a chance for the company to do things “the San Francisco way” with collaboration and engagement at the local level.
“San Francisco is yet again ground zero and the guinea pig,” he said, hearkening back to the disruptive entrance of ride-hail companies such as Uber and Lyft into the San Francisco market.
According to the staff report provided for the meeting, one of the iconic red- and white-striped Cruise vehicles has been deployed for the early stages of testing without a driver in an isolated, undisclosed part of The City, operating overnight when there should be limited interaction with other cars or pedestrians.
No other details were provided. The company is under no obligation under state law to report deployment or outreach details to The City.
Self-driving cars might gain even more traction statewide as the California Public Utilities Commission is poised to offer autonomous vehicle companies the chance to apply for a permit to provide commercial passenger service, charge for rides and create split fares to riders going to different destinations.
The CPUC is expected to discuss this permit option on Nov. 19, using feedback including that provided by both the SFCTA and SFMTA.
Both agencies agree they want to see robust data reporting to review company performance, ensure concerns about access for individuals with disabilities are addressed and roll out the service on a limited basis in order to provide time to evaluate the impact of this new capability, among other concerns.
Cruise received permission from the California Department of Vehicles to test its unmanned fleet on San Francisco streets without an in-person backup in October, making it the first autonomous vehicle company to do so within The City.
Self-driving cars promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mitigate traffic violence and cut congestion, but some officials worry those safety payoffs are undercut by the lack of local regulation and recourse for city stakeholders.
Supervisor Gordon Mar said he was “concerned” the permit from the DMV was issued “without any meaningful local input and oversight beyond cursory notification by Cruise and their lobbyist rather than collaboration,” and he said the “rejection of the invitation” to attend was “another concerning example.”
Cruise reported to CTA staff that they conducted outreach to individual supervisors, city agencies and community groups to discuss their operations, but declined to provide specifics.
Peskin said this explanation, provided by a lobbyist, “just doesn’t cut it.”
While there’s nothing legally dubious about the driverless car being on the roads unchaperoned, safe streets advocates have raised concerns over how the lack of transparency around testing could impact other road users and the potential obfuscation it could portend.
“If autonomous vehicle technology is to have any chance at achieving the goal of dramatically reducing collisions on our streets, we have to ensure the strictest safety standards in testing and early deployment first,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s executive director. “That means the companies engaged in testing must be open and transparent with the public about their operations.”
Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for the SFMTA, said he sees significant opportunity for safety payoffs if public agencies and the private sector can partner effectively, but that it has to be done with “eyes wide open” and taking into account “lessons from the past.”
Emerging mobility technology such as Cruise’s driverless vehicles could “certainly help” San Francisco achieve its Vision Zero goals, if it is programmed to follow the speed limit, avoid double parking in bike lanes, yield to pedestrians and follow traffic rules, according to Tumlin.
“We are eager to work with industry to see their data that documents that autonomous vehicles are significantly safer than vehicles driven by humans,” he said.