Jul 21, 2023 - Transit

Exclusive: Disability advocates push for robotaxi expansion

A white self-driving car from Waymo, outfitted with sensors, drives on Folsom street

A Waymo car in San Francisco last month. Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is among a group of community organizations urging state regulators to approve Waymo's permit that would enable the self-driving car company to receive payments for its around-the-clock service in San Francisco.

Why it matters: Community organizations that advocate on behalf of people with disabilities argue autonomous vehicles are safer and provide more accessibility and independence than traditional ride-hailing services, and hope the permit will encourage expanded services.

What's happening: In an open letter posted Friday, more than a dozen community advocacy groups urged the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to "approve Waymo's permit at the earliest possible opportunity," arguing driverless cars "can ensure this next generation of transportation is more inclusive than ever."

  • In addition to LightHouse, other groups include the San Francisco LGBT Center, Self-Help for the Elderly and the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California.

Context: Waymo and competitor Cruise are both seeking to expand their respective paid passenger services in San Francisco but first need approval from the CPUC.

  • San Francisco officials, however, have been complaining about driverless vehicles in the city for months, saying the robotaxis disrupt traffic and interfere with bus routes and emergency scenes, Axios' Joann Muller reports.
  • Amid these concerns, the CPUC this month delayed its highly anticipated decision from this month to next month.

By the numbers: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) estimates there were 85 incidents involving Waymo and 261 involving Cruise between April 2022 and this past April, spokesperson Stephen Chun told Axios San Francisco.

  • These incidents include a variety of driving behaviors, like stopping unexpectedly, collisions and more.
  • Cruise spokesperson Drew Pusateri, in an emailed statement to Axios, said the company is "proud" of its safety record, which "includes millions of miles driven in an extremely complex urban environment."
  • Waymo pointed Axios to a blog post earlier this month that said, based on its data analyses, "it’s clear that the Waymo Driver is already reducing traffic injuries and fatalities in the cities where we operate."

What they're saying: Sharon Giovinazzo, LightHouse's CEO, said the longer-term benefits of autonomous driving ultimately outweigh the cons.

  • Robotaxis have "the power to transform lives," she told Axios San Francisco. "It literally opens the doors for people who've been excluded."

Of note: Driverless cars still have room to be better for people with disabilities, Giovinazzo said, like having more wheelchair-accessible vehicles, for example.

The other side: San Francisco's transportation agency was "relieved" the CPUC delayed its vote, Chun told Axios via email.

  • The agency, he said, has several concerns with driverless vehicles, including not understanding to stay out of the way when a building is on fire.
  • "We truly hope and are excited that automated driving can significantly improve safety and provide other benefits to those who travel in San Francisco," he added. "However, we are not there yet. This technology is still in development and is simply not ready to operate 24/7 in the city."

What to watch: The CPUC confirmed to Axios the Cruise and Waymo resolutions are on its Aug. 10 voting meeting agenda.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect Waymo has already been operating a 24-7 service in San Francisco (instead of asking to start 24-7 service) and that it's seeking approval to start charging for it.


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