Despite strong opposition from city officials and after a heated debate between supporters and opponents of the plan, the California regulator has allowed Waymo and Cruise to operate 24-hour, 24-hour, paid autonomous taxis throughout San Francisco. This was announced by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Thursday. Previously, the robo-taxis were only allowed to drive in certain parts of the city at certain times (Cruise) or had to be offered free of charge without a security guard on board (Waymo). With three votes to one, the commission now voted for the big expansion and gave both companies and autonomous vehicles a big victory, as US media explain.
Before the much-anticipated vote, city officials had been vocal in protest at the planned lifting of restrictions, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. It was criticized, for example, that the autonomous taxis that were already active were responsible for 600 “disruptive” events up to June alone and that the number of them continued to rise as the number of active taxis increased. Cases in which ambulances or the fire brigade were obstructed by autonomous taxis that got stuck in the way were made public again and again. The city also noted that very basic facts, such as the number of robotic taxis used, how often they stop and cause accidents, do not have to be passed on at all.
Before the vote on Thursday, the public was also able to comment, and hundreds of people did so for seven hours. A sharp split in opinion became apparent, the newspaper writes. Although the session ended with a slight majority for the critics, writes The Verge, supporters definitely made themselves felt. Support for autonomous taxis came from people with physical disabilities, who have so far lacked adequate transport options. Others criticized that the autonomous taxis would cost people their jobs and painted a picture of even more congested streets in the metropolis.
“While we don’t yet have the data to compare the performance of autonomous cars versus human drivers, I believe in the potential of the technology to improve road safety,” said CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds. Industry must work with local organizations to resolve problems. His colleague Genevieve Shiroma – the only no vote – spoke of a hasty step. Waymo and Cruise welcomed the decision. In San Francisco, critics recently took action against the robotic taxis with the so-called “coning”: If a traffic cone is placed on the hood, the vehicle stops and someone has to remove the cone manually.
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