This Cruise driverless car would not stop rolling into a fire scene at 1310 Hayes on Jan. 22, 2023. In a report, a firefighter writes that he shouted, banged on its hood and finally had to smash its window to make it stop.

A generation ago, if you saw someone using an iPhone, you pointed and stared: Hey look! An iPhone!

They were a novelty. But then they became ubiquitous. And, then, beyond ubiquitous: Many of you likely have an old iPhone or two gathering dust at the bottom of a junk drawer or propping up a three-legged rice cooker or whatnot. Technology moves fast, breaks things.

Until recently, the driverless cars whirring about San Francisco were a novelty. Then they, too, grew ubiquitous. And, soon, they will be beyond ubiquitous. The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on Thursday on whether to allow autonomous vehicle companies to run driverless taxis 24/7/365. That comes on the heels of a meeting today with disgruntled public safety officials. 

Those public safety officials are disgruntled because of driverless cars’ persistent tendency to wander, like an autonomous Mr. Magoo, into fire and police emergency scenes and occupy emergency responders otherwise occupied with responding to emergencies. 

But cops and firefighters are also disgruntled because, knowing a little something about politics, they foresee the state’s Public Utilities Commission all but certainly voting to give driverless vehicles full and unfettered access to the city, no matter what cops and firefighters say, and no matter what they’ve meticulously documented.

That’s where the smart money is. Or, at least, lots of money — tremendous amounts of money and power are in play. Which would go a long way toward explaining this pending vote. 

A police officer negotiates with an autonomous car on Feb. 9, 2023.

“How many autonomous vehicles would it take to blanket a city like San Francisco to have a disruptive service similar to Uber?” asked a participant in a July 25 earnings call for General Motors, the parent company of autonomous vehicle outfit Cruise. “Can you do it with under 1,000 to 2,000 Origins?” 

“Origins” are Cruise’s large, autonomous, six-passenger vehicles that don’t come equipped with steering wheels or any trappings of human control. They look a bit like rolling shoe boxes, and they’re already here in San Francisco.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt fielded the question: “As for what it would take to blanket a city like San Francisco, our goal … is to make sure we ramp up manufacturing capacity. We’ve got a variety of markets to absorb these vehicles, and there are practical reasons to ramp up gradually in a city, just to make sure it acclimates as it’s transitioning to a new form of mobility.”

In other words: Hey look! An Origin! 

“That said,” Vogt continued, “for perspective, there are over 10,000 human ride-hail drivers in San Francisco, potentially much more than that. Those drivers, of course, aren’t working 24 hours a day like a robot taxi could. It doesn’t take a very high number to generate significant revenue in a city like San Francisco, but certainly there is the capacity to absorb several thousand per city at a minimum.” 

So there you are: Several thousand per city at a minimum. A spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission confirms that there are “currently no limitations on the number of vehicles either Cruise and Waymo can operate under their existing permits from the DMV and CPUC.”

The exact number of autonomous vehicles meandering through San Francisco today is only known to the autonomous vehicle companies themselves, so you might as well ask the cat. But the Department of Motor Vehicles lists 602 driverless vehicles in California, including 268 for Waymo and 303 for Cruise. Cruise is only permitted to operate without drivers in San Francisco, while Waymo can operate sans drivers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. 

The vast majority of these cars would figure to be navigating through San Francisco — but, even still, an influx of “several thousand” into the city would be massive. For Cruise, with 303 vehicles presently permitted in San Francisco, it could represent a tenfold increase. And, of course, Cruise is just one of several autonomous vehicle companies.

On that same July 25 earnings call, Vogt said that Cruise now has 390 total driverless vehicles. “I believe we are the largest and fastest-growing autonomous vehicle fleet in the world,” he said. “Yet you will see several times this scale in the next six months.”

= 50 Cruise driverless cars

There are currently 303

driverless Cruise cars

permitted in the city,

according to the DMV.

To reach “several thousand”

driverless Cruise cars in San

Francisco would involve a

potential tenfold increase.

= 50 Cruise driverless cars

There are currently 303 driverless

Cruise cars permitted in the city,

according to the DMV.

To reach “several thousand”

driverless Cruise cars in San

Francisco would require at

least a tenfold increase.

Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Your local firefighters are not amused. San Francisco’s Chief, Jeanine Nicholson, went on something of a media blitz in June, telling all who’d listen that the autonomous vehicles “are not ready for prime time.

In May, Mission Local obtained video of a Waymo car intruding into a fire emergency scene, inducing a bewildered police officer to shake a lit road flare and shout at the driverless vehicle as if it were a giant, misbehaving puppy (“No! You stay!”). At the time of that May 1 story, firefighters had filled out some 15 “unusual occurrence” reports documenting Cruise or Waymo vehicles interfering with fire equipment and/or personnel. That tally is now up over 50 (earlier totals approaching 70 reported in the media have been scaled back after duplicate reports were discovered).

Autonomous vehicles have blithely run through downed power lines, blocked in fire rigs, befuddled construction workers by driving into their work site and, perhaps most notably, blocked a lane in front of first responders following the June 9 Mission District mass shooting that left nine victims wounded. This last instance was brought up, ad nauseam, in the trove of official letters penned by local and statewide public safety departments and their unions urging the California Public Utilities Commission to hold off granting full and unfettered street access to robot cars.

These letters get to the heart of what’s so problematic about autonomous vehicles and the imminent move to enable them further. That a computer can outperform a human is no great surprise; Deep Blue in 1997 beat Garry Kasparov, and few of us drive as well as Kasparov plays chess. So the claim that supercomputers can’t, on the whole, drive with more technical proficiency than folks running stop signs while texting and spilling coffee is a bit of a stretch.

It’s more than a little on-the-nose that Cruise produced this mockup of an Origin picking up passengers in the Castro, in which the vehicle is idling in a Muni loading zone.

San Francisco, however, made that stretch, sending the Public Utilities Commission data claiming driverless cars crash more often than humans. But, in an ominous sign for the city, the PUC wrote back that “San Francisco’s analysis appears to omit or overlook relevant facts present in the data and collision narratives that are critical for understanding the context of the cited incidents.”

So, that’s a bad look for San Francisco. While we’re at it, it’s a bad look for the state Public Utilities Commission that Commissioner John Reynolds, who served as Cruise’s managing counsel from 2019 to 2021, will be voting on this matter. But those don’t exactly even out.

In any event, San Francisco’s sloppiness and/or duplicity was a gratuitous self-own. Because the issue isn’t that autonomous vehicles drive better or worse than humans, but that they drive differently. Most of the time, they’ll be fine. But in emergency situations, they behave in counter-intuitive ways. And that makes for danger.

Instead of pulling to the side of the road when a fire rig approaches, they freeze. They do not discern what police tape is, or that the speed-bump-like object on the street is a fire hose. And even the most sophisticated autonomous vehicle can be crippled by human carelessness. Your humble narrator is told that a passenger’s failure to firmly close the car door can lead to a driverless vehicle freezing until someone manually steps in and solves the problem. A robot car is not equipped with a derriere with which to bump shut a door that’s ajar.

“We have enough to deal with as firefighters and public safety officials,” says a high-ranking veteran firefighter. “We shouldn’t be babysitting new technology.”

Between Cruise, Waymo, and other companies, there

are 602 driverless cars on the roads in California.

Between Cruise, Waymo, and other

companies, there are 602 driverless

cars on the roads in California.

Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Does not include driverless cars that must use safety drivers.

The question asked in the July 25 conference call, about Cruise potentially scaling up in San Francisco to disrupt the disrupters at Uber, was funny. But not ha-ha funny. This city, years ago, opted to coddle amoral tech companies, and now they’re battling it out on the streets like Godzilla vs. Mothra.

So, the folks at Uber should have an eye on their rearview mirrors. But not just Uber. When Vogt was talking about rapidly expanding his fleet, he noted it’s “all on the Bolt platform” — Chevy Bolts, an electric hatchback. “But we’re also about to transition to Origins, which are a game-changer on costs.”

Cruise would figure to be eager to change the game regarding costs: GM’s most recent financial disclosures reveal that Cruise lost $781 million in the first six months of 2023 — and that’s after a $458 million tax deferral. 

But here comes Origin. And not only can you put six people into an Origin’s uncluttered interior, you can also stack a pile of boxes, or any number of pizzas or burritos or sushi orders. The ride-hailing drivers who undercut the taxi drivers are, themselves, about to be undercut. But so are the UPS drivers and other parcel services, as well as food-delivery people. And, in the not-too-distant future, so are the truck drivers and, perhaps, even the bus drivers.

Will autonomous vehicles be safer than those driven by humans? Probably. Will they, in the foreseeable future, put millions of people out of work — and out of some of the last jobs a recent immigrant and/or person of modest educational achievement can ride to a middle-class life? All but certainly. It’s coming, but we’re not doing anything to prepare for it.

Technology moves fast, breaks things. But at least we’ll be granted time to acclimate: Hey, look! My future!

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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19 Comments

  1. Yes, Cruise and Waymo can roll down the block without hitting anything. Most of the time.
    But no, they cannot drive, and won’t be able to for a long time, if ever.
    Meanwhile, they antagonize, like unruly Roombas. Eye contact? Wave them through a stop? Good thing somebody found out these things can be stopped by placing a large object on the hood, at least for now.
    All in all it’s only a matter of time until they indeed will be at fault of running somebody over or fatally getting in the way. It’ll be interesting to see what happens then.

    +12
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  2. “….there are practical reasons to ramp up gradually in a city, just to make sure it acclimates as it’s transitioning to a new form of mobility.” So this for profit company thinks it is their role to transition San Francisco to a new form of mobility that they control and price? Oh hell

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    1. At some point, unfortunately, one will get into a serious accident. Surely the army of lawyers who long ago blanketed the City should be able to sue them out of town. We already have enough cars and even some bicycles driven with no sign of intelligent life without this pestilence.

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  3. I don’t care for the annoyance of the double-parked gig service vehicles, nor their owner’s exploitation by the ‘apps’ that enslave them. Many have resisted attacking these service vehicles because they see the Don’t Hate the Player – Hate the Game aspect of it. As the humans are sidelined, I can envision a modern version of The Monkey Wrench Gang going after these devices for sport. Does anyone think the threat of prosecution (LOL) is going to deter all-out war on these things? They will need to repaint them every morning. It will be interesting.

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  4. Do we want humans on our streets who can communicate with us or do we want robotic vehicles who ignore us? That is how the robotaxis operate now. The least they can do is insist on equal protections for the humans while the robots go back for upgrades. So far they are not smart than humans and their owner/handlers are not to be trusted with the data they are collecting on us when they refuse to share it. Lawsuits are in the wings no doubt.

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  5. The street will find creative and legal ways to thwart this plague upon our fair city. Just yesterday I saw a driverless Cruise vehicle going to fast while making a left turn and that caused it to swing wide, turning into the right lane instead of the center lane, nearly hitting a legally parked car and the car’s streetside passengers who were exiting the car. And then the car just stayed there, long after the passengers were gone, blocking traffic. No, this technology is not ready. No, we should not be taking money from Taxi and Uber drivers and handing that money to billionaires. This stinks. Thank you Ed Lee.

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  6. GM has deep pockets (the higher owner of Cruise) and I’d guess that Breed and Co. have taken some dollars to allow SF to be a training ground.

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  7. Forgive me if this has been covered, but have the tech companies shielded themselves from liability if people and vehicles are harmed by these things? As with so called “ride sharing” where liability is offloaded onto the driver and the customer.

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  8. I have mixed feelings about these cars. so many people drive so badly these days that almost anything would be safer. but…there need to be no fly zones, starting with valencia st. because ubers + lyfts + doordashes have clogged the bike lanes, while making endless illegal uturns and driving so badly on valencia, with zero enforcement by sfpd (located so far away), we now have the center bike lane, which has rendered the street completely inflexible. if one car stops, the whole street is blocked. therefore, there is no room for the roombas on valencia.

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  9. Also, the majority of pollution from cars is now from brakes and tires, not exhaust – due to emissions controls and now hybrid and electric vehicles. (https://www.greencarreports.com/news/1138892_research-tires-and-brakes-emit-more-particulates-than-tailpipes)

    So, the Sunset should be getting something from Cruise and the others in exchange for the extra pollution. All of our residents have been exposed to higher particulate matter than the rest of the city for two years prior to the self-driving vehicles being unleashed upon the rest of the city. Nobody talks about the health impacts which are real, especially for those with asthma and other breathing issues. Now we are looking at polluting the city even more – by private companies for their financial gain.

    Why is this allowed? What is the benefit to the residents of SF?

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    1. Given how cautiously they drive, I would expect brake and tire dust to be minimal compared to human-driver cars

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  10. As a biker and pedestrian I feel completely not seen by these cars. The other day a Cruise was standing in the middle of the crossroad and I wasnt sure if I could pass it as there is not the eye contact that I am used to make countless times a day. It was like meeting a wild animal where you have no clue how it is going to react.

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  11. Hello Joe,
    Who will Robo-Taxis in SF hurt,
    first,
    worst,
    and,
    Likely,
    permanently?
    SF taxi drivers.
    The overwhelming majority of whom have refused to fight for employee status or,
    union representation.
    And who are thought of,
    by the overwhelming majority of
    SF Organized Labor,
    and the overwhelming majority of
    SF residents,
    as no more than,
    Humanure.
    They steadfastly,
    for over 40 years,
    refused to demand either employee status, or,
    union representation,
    now,
    the chickens have come home to roost.
    They made their bed,
    Now,
    Let them lie in it.
    Best,
    Bob

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    1. The hell with taxi drivers AND the public? Your schadenfreude is tinged with depression and regret.

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  12. Predictable paranoia from the Mission Local commenters. These vehicles have speed caps programmed and tend to drive conservatively. Much better we have these than the maniacs driving recklessly trying to fit in as many Lyft/Uber runs as they can. Seeing one of these is comforting. Hearing some nut in a Dodge Charger from 2 blocks away and wondering if they are going to crash into me or stop, get out and rob me, not so comforting.

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  13. > Will they, in the foreseeable future, put millions of people out of work — and out of some of the last jobs a recent immigrant and/or person of modest educational achievement can ride to a middle-class life?

    Get a grip, Joe. One of the few paths to legal immigration into the United States that doesn’t depend on family already being here is the H1B visa which is mostly awarded to skilled technology workers, who the city vilifies. It’s weird to see you care about them here all of a sudden.

    There are plenty of jobs that play better than driving for ride hail in the city, or are you suddenly a convert that the flexibility given by gig work is essential to some people? And I’d gladly re-skill unionized UPS drivers into another union professional our city desperately needs: police! In fact, I think most cops should wear a uniform that’s beautiful and friendly like UPS’s instead of the paramilitary gear they have today.

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  14. You’ve made an error here in saying that these vehicles don’t pull over when they spot an emergency vehicle. They do. It’s easy to find video evidence of this. But the most important thing is that when these companies encounter these problems, they are addressing them. And when it’s fixed for one vehicle, it’s fixed for all of them. You say 50. Is that current? Because if it is, it indicates that we’ve seen very few additional instances of this problem since the prior report. Now I appreciate that San Francisco is going through some pains here as this technology is ironed out. But overall, the problems have been really quite minor compared to the problems that human drivers have caused in the same time period. And as I said – these are problems we can count on going away if you continue to report them _and allow progress to happen._ We already see progress being made as the companies take these reports seriously and implement changes that improve or solve them. I’ve been watching unpaid Waymo users ride in these vehicles and seeing how they pull over when emergency vehicles approach or reroute completely to avoid scenes where emergency vehicles are present.

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    1. Sounds like you work for one of these companies, haha.

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    2. ” I appreciate that San Francisco is going through some pains here as this technology is ironed out.”

      Which is exactly why we should not be made the subjects of a corporate experiment!

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