THE CALIFORNIA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION voted 3-1 to allow the companies to charge all passengers, operate their autonomous vehicles 24/7 and add an unlimited amount of cars to their fleets. 

The decision came after robotaxi proponents and opponents weighed in during an hours-long public comment session on whether autonomous vehicles’ technology is safe enough for the companies to expand their fleet throughout the city.  

Currently, Cruise is allowed to charge for rides from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in specific areas of the city and free rides at all other times, while Waymo can only charge for rides while a driver is in the vehicle. Both companies will now be able to freely expand their operations in San Francisco. 

“Today’s permit marks the true beginning of our commercial operations in San Francisco,” said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo in a statement. “We’re incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence from the CPUC, and to the communities and riders who have supported our service.” 

‘Progress’ over ‘tragic status quo’

Waymo said it expects “incredibly high” demand for rides as it will begin to gradually expand its operations, with over 100,000 signups on its waitlist.  

Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, said the action was a “huge milestone” for not only the future of driverless cars, but showing that California “prioritizes progress” over the company’s “tragic status quo.”

Representatives of Waymo and its supporters’ Safer Roads for All campaign gathered on the steps of the California Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2023. (Olivia Wynkoop/Bay City News)

“We share the CPUC’s commitment to delivering safer, cleaner and more accessible transportation options, and remain committed to collaborating closely with regulators to push toward this critical goal,” Vogt said. 

Proponents argued that robotaxis have proven to consistently provide stable and safe rides for people free from reckless driving, road rage or harassment. On a larger scale, the ride services could cut back on vehicle-induced collisions and deaths, said attendees during a rally before the vote. 

Many gathered on the front of the government agency’s steps in yellow shirts with “Safer Roads for All” printed on the front – the title of Waymo and its partners’ latest campaign to garner public support. They were joined by disability advocates and representatives from the Service Employees International Union. 

“Autonomous vehicles promise more than just mobility, they offer a renewed sense of confidence and empowerment.”

Sharon Giovinazzo, Lighthouse for the Blind

“For many years, navigating the bustling streets has been a challenge limiting freedom and potential for so many people with visual impairments,” Sharon Giovinazzo of the Lighthouse for the Blind. “Autonomous vehicles promise more than just mobility, they offer a renewed sense of confidence and empowerment.” 

In an open letter, accessibility leaders from organizations like the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Self-Help for the Elderly and United Cerebral Palsy said driverless vehicles are an accessible and inclusive transportation option for people with disabilities.  

Also during the meeting, members of the blind community shared their previous experiences of being denied entering an Uber because of their service dog or facing harassment on public transportation. 

“The potential benefits of autonomous ridehail services are no longer hypothetical — people are taking accessible and affordable rides now and deserve the ability to have those options expanded further, including development of a wheelchair accessible purpose built vehicle,” reads the letter. 

Uncertainty on safety

Protesters against the expansion of robotaxis gathered on the steps of the California Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2023. (Olivia Wynkoop/Bay City News)

But those in opposition said these cars are simply not ready to be on the market full-time due to frequent cases of disruptions, inability to respond immediately to commands and the ethicality of AI potentially replacing human jobs. 

On the other side of the steps, representatives of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance cried out against the campaign’s slogan while holding a mural that depicted a dog run over by a vehicle, referencing a June incident where a Waymo self-driving car killed a dog that darted into the street.

“They’re saying it’s safe when they know it’s a lie,” said Steve Zeltzer, host of labor radio show “WorkWeek” on KPFA

Others opposed the uncertainty of regulation and adding significantly more vehicles on the road, rather than improving public transportation.   

“You can’t stop technology like the wheel or the development of the Industrial Revolution. The question is, who should benefit from technology, should it be tech billionaires, or working people in the pipeline?” added Zeltzer. 

Others in the disability community opposed automated vehicles, expressing concerns that they would not be able to get help or escape a car without assistance if something went wrong during a drive. 

“They’re saying its safe when they know it’s a lie.”

Host Steve Zeltzer, KPFA’s ‘WorkWeek’

On Aug. 10, San Francisco Fire Chief Jeannine Nicholson cited that since the beginning of 2023, Waymo and Cruise cars have had 55 incidents of disruptive driving, including stopping in the middle of streets, driving erratically or becoming an obstacle for first responders. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, some city supervisors and public transportation officials previously expressed opposition to the expansion of autonomous vehicles in the city. 

“While we do not yet have the data to judge AVs against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” said CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds. “Collaboration between key stakeholders in the industry and the first responder community will be vital in resolving issues as they arise in this innovative, emerging technology space.”