California allows driverless taxis to operate in San Francisco

San Francisco will become the first US City where driverless taxis, without humans behind them, are allowed to roam the streets and carry paying customers without restrictions. This is the result of a landmark ruling by California regulators.

California Public Utilities Commission approved the full commercial Robotaxi services for the city, despite protests by San Francisco officials claiming that the vehicles had not been tested and unions who were concerned about the loss of jobs.

The agency’s commissioners voted 3 to 1 on Thursday, allowing Waymo and Cruise – which are owned by Alphabet and General Motors respectively – to operate driverless cabs in San Francisco.

Both companies have cars without safety drivers on the road. However, they are limited to where they can drive and when. They also cannot carry passengers. Alphabet Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet, has launched a commercial service for a part of Phoenix’s suburbs and a few other US cities where driverless cars are currently being tested.

Prashanthi RAMAN, Vice-President of Global Government Affairs at Cruise, described the decision as a “historical industry milestone”. It would allow the company to “compete with traditional ridehailing and challenge the unsafe, inaccessible status quo in transportation”.

Google started developing the first driverless car 14 years ago, which led to predictions that autonomous cars would be ubiquitous in a decade.

The difficulty in teaching cars how to handle the rare “edge cases” which can happen on the road, and are not covered by training data, has delayed the commercialisation of this technology.

San Francisco’s Transit Authority and Mayor’s Office called on the utilities Commission to delay approval. They argued that more time was required to prove the vehicles are safe and put in place a system to monitor the driverless service.

Authorities cited in particular instances where driverless vehicles stalled at city intersections, blocking traffic and forcing their owners to physically move the cars.

The companies claimed that the city had no right to object because they had met the state’s requirements, which included the California Department of Motor Vehicles rules for driverless cars.