Regulators Agree to Expansion of Driverless Car Services in San Francisco

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 California Public Utilities Commission delayed its vote on driverless taxi expansion until this week.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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.

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.”

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