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MarketWatch First Take: San Francisco transit agency sees more concerning incidents with driverless cars, calls for companies to share more data

Worrisome incidents involving driverless cars in San Francisco are on the rise and are averaging about 90 reports a month, the head of San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Authority told MarketWatch in a recent interview.

The SFMTA is one of three city agencies that recently joined together in letters of protest to the California Public Utility Commission — which regulates autonomous cars — ahead of a hearing to review proposed expansion plans for Alphabet Inc.’s


Waymo and General Motors Co.’s

Cruise, which would allow fare-generating robotaxis across the city. A July hearing, which had been expected to give the companies the go-ahead to their deployment plans, has been rescheduled for Aug. 10.

As driverless car fleets have expanded operations across the city, San Francisco public officials have had enough, and are speaking out about safety threats, with the city’s fire chief telling MarketWatch earlier this month that “They are not ready for prime time.”

Read more: Driverless cars are driving San Francisco crazy — ‘They are not ready for prime time’

“We are up to 90 incidents per month … of varying degrees, some are minor, some are major obstructions,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the SFMTA’s director of transportation. “We have no regulatory authority, so we are trying to work with the CPUC for data-reporting requirements.”

The SFMTA also would like a more gradual expansion of autonomous cars, with limitations — like the next level of a “learner’s permit.”

“We are very enthusiastic about this technology, but it is having significant negative consequences,” Tumlin said.

In the past few months, there have been more and more complaints about the autonomous vehicles driving around the city, using its as a test bed to learn some of the worst possible traffic situations to train their systems. Earlier this month, a group of activists called Safe Street Rebel initiated protests on TikTok and Twitter, asking people to place orange safety cones on the self-driving cars, which causes them to stop.

While Safe Street Rebel has the same concerns as the SFMTA about the need for self-driving companies to share more data with regulators, the act of placing safety cones on top of the driverless cars is actually worsening the current problem. The SFMTA said it does not endorse any actions that may increase the number of disabled vehicles on San Francisco streets. 

Tumlin also said that the data-gathering of driverless cars is incomplete, including when the cars cause major traffic problems but do not actually crash. “Right now there is no data collection around these hazardous conditions where the autonomous vehicle doesn’t crash into anything itself, but may be causing hazards for others on the roads,” he said. “But even when they do crash, there is very little information about causality.”

A Waymo spokesman said “the data to date indicates the Waymo Driver is reducing traffic injuries and fatalities in the places where we operate. In over a million miles of fully autonomous operations, we had no collisions involving pedestrians or cyclists, and every vehicle-to-vehicle collision involved rule violations or dangerous behavior on the part of the human drivers.

Tumlin said that while the CPUC agrees that the current state of data is incomplete, the regulator disagrees with the SFMTA’s conclusions. One example cited in the protest letter was the SFMTA’s conclusion that based on Cruise data currently available, from June 2022 to February 2023, the rate of collisions — none of which resulted in injuries — “appears to exceed the collision rate for human drivers.” This was described in the CPUC’s draft resolution on Cruise as a “good safety record.”

“We want industry to be transparent with us and what progress they are making,” Tumlin said.

Also see: Watch what happens when police pull over a driverless car in San Francisco

Tumlin did not want to speculate on why the CPUC had postponed the meeting and vote until August, but said he is hopeful that a more data collection will be required at the next stages in the process.

“We don’t expect autonomous vehicles to be perfect and we want them to succeed, but if AV companies want us to believe their safety claims, they should be comfortable sharing their data,” he said.

It is a rare instance when many San Francisco agencies can actually agree, and driverless cars have lead to a united front among officials in public transit, the fire department, the police department and the city’s Board of Supervisors. The Aug. 10 meeting represents a chance for regulators to actually to slow down driverless cars, and demand better data reporting requirements, before it’s too late.

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