California regulators agreed on Thursday to the expansion of driverless taxi services in San Francisco, despite the safety concerns of local officials and community activists.
In a 3-to-1 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates self-driving cars in the state, gave Cruise and Waymo permission to offer paid rides anytime during the day throughout the city. One commissioner was absent.
Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary, had been offering paid rides in one-third of the city while Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was offering free trips to passengers in its driverless cars. The vote had no impact on the frequent test drives that Waymo and Cruise have been conducting without passengers on San Francisco streets.
The commission’s decision after a seven-hour hearing followed months of protest by city officials and civic groups, who complained that the driverless cars were a potential road hazard. While the autonomous vehicles have not been blamed for any serious incidents, city officials say they often shut down and won’t move after encountering an unexpected obstacle like a fire hose or downed electrical lines.
The expansion plan was the first indication that driverless cars could be commercially viable after billions of dollars in investments by the tech and auto industries. “San Francisco would be a proof of concept” for the rest of the country, said Matt Wansley, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York.
Darcie Houck, a commissioner who voted for the expansion, said the companies had met requirements that the state set out. But she added that it was “critical that the industry work directly with the city” to review problems after they occurred and establish training for emergency workers like firefighters who sometimes interacted with the cars.
Cruise operates 300 vehicles in San Francisco during the night and 100 during the day, while Waymo operates 250 throughout the day. Neither company expected a significant increase in the number of vehicles.
Waymo said its driverless fleet would “align” with rider demands, while Cruise said it would focus on expanding the market to new parts of the city, since it had offered paid rides only in northwest San Francisco.
Both supporters and opponents of driverless cars — including trade unions, gig workers, disability groups and transportation activists — flocked to the commission’s headquarters in San Francisco on Thursday. In a campaign organized by Waymo, close to 100 employees and riders showed up to the meeting in yellow shirts that said, “Safer Roads for All.”
Genevieve Shiroma, the commissioner who voted against the expansion, said the commission “lacks sufficient information to evaluate and incorporate the fashion of safety of this mode of transportation.” She said she was concerned that self-driving cars had interfered with the work of firefighters and police officers.
In a statement, Prashanthi Raman, Cruise’s president of global government affairs, called the decision a “historic industry milestone.” Waymo said it would start charging its current customers fares and, in the coming weeks, start inviting the more than 100,000 people on its waiting list to become riders.