Cruise, the robotaxi company that appears to have taken the tech mantra “move fast, break things” a bit too literally, is having a dire run of late.
The company voluntarily grounded all of its self-driving cars, worldwide, last month. That came on the heels of the state stepping in and doing that for them here in California, following an early October incident in which a Cruise autonomous vehicle did not detect that it had stopped on top of a pedestrian who’d been struck by a hit-and-run driver. It subsequently attempted to pull over, and dragged her 20 feet.
Cruise, which is losing some $263 million every month, wanted to move things faster, and now it must move them slower. It wanted to vastly expand its driverless fleet in San Francisco, and now it cannot. It even wanted to sublimate itself into the city’s DNA by slapping a gaudy Cruise patch on every San Francisco Giant’s left shoulder. Let the record show that the home team was 61-49 on Aug. 3 when those patches were sewed on — and finished the year on an 18-34 slide. All of this happened, more or less.
But Cruise is not the only robotaxi outfit in San Francisco. In this city, big money-backed tech disruptors tend to come in bunches. And rival companies tend to assume the Betty and Veronica roles of “good” outfit and “bad” outfit. Think Lyft and Uber, or Spin and Bird. Now, we have Waymo and Cruise.
Having talked to a number of San Francisco public safety officials, they’re not thrilled with Waymo — but it’s hard to overstate the disdain they express for Cruise. The company’s people have not ingratiated themselves with the officials leading and overseeing the city they’ve chosen to blanket. And neither have its vehicles; of the 90-odd incidents in which autonomous vehicles interfered in emergency scenes, thus far compiled by the fire department, we are told some two-thirds involve Cruise vehicles. That tracks: Of the 55 initial recorded incidents Mission Local published in August, 34 involved Cruise vehicles, 18 involved Waymos and three aren’t clear.
With Cruise stuck in the penalty box, you’d figure Waymo would be on a power play. But the city appears to be taking steps to ensure that’s not the case.
Board President Aaron Peskin is planning to ramp up the sorts of actions he’s earlier referred to as “legislative guerilla warfare” — and a promised shot across Waymo’s bow. An early salvo appears to have been unleashed in September, when Waymo’s attempt to land at San Francisco International Airport skidded off the runway.
One of comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s best old jokes notes that animals are our friends — but they won’t pick you up at the airport.
Most people won’t either, which explains why private transit to and from SFO is such a potential gold mine. When app-based ride-hail companies like Uber won the right to pick up and drop off San Francisco airport passengers it was a big, big deal. If and when autonomous vehicles can do the same — as they already can with Waymo in Phoenix, Arizona — that, too, would be huge.
Via public records requests, Mission Local obtained months of back-and-forths between SFO officials and Waymo employees hoping to get the ball rolling on preliminary steps to get autonomous vehicles into the airport.
In California, driverless cars are regulated by both the state Public Utilities Commission and Department of Motor Vehicles, and it will require a number of steps on the statewide level to even get things to the point where SFO can give Waymo, Cruise, et al. the ability to do what Waymo is already doing in Phoenix. But, in the end, SFO is operated by the city — and this will loom large.
While SFO officials noted within the email exchanges that they were not yet on-board with the “phases” and timelines proposed by Waymo, they were okay with the company “mapping” the airport. This would entail a Waymo vehicle, operated by a human being, scanning the airport’s roadways in advance of driverless vehicles rolling through autonomously in the future.
On Aug. 23, Abubakar Azam, the airport’s director of landside operations, wrote a short, upbeat note to Waymo officials:
“We want to inform you that we are indeed moving forward with the mapping aspect and are actively working on establishing permit terms. … Annie will reach out to you to schedule a meeting to review the terms of the permit as soon as the permit is finalized.”
And yet, not quite one month later on Sept. 21, Azam wrote Waymo back with a very different message:
“We have decided to postpone the mapping permit until Waymo has completed mapping for at least the cities surrounding SFO and secured autonomous operations approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for San Mateo county.”
One of these things is not like the other. What changed in a month’s time?
“What changed between the August and September e-mails,” writes airport spokesman Doug Yakel, “was an assessment of the broader autonomous vehicle landscape, which led to our desire to see Waymo complete further development in communities around the airport before we entertain a digital mapping exercise.”
Well, that sounds plausible. Also, did Peskin inform airport officials he was planning to introduce legislation conditioning Waymo’s access to SFO upon increased transparency and other city demands?
Yeah, that happened, too.
While City Attorney David Chiu is leading this city’s legal campaign to pare back autonomous vehicle access to San Francisco, it’s Peskin who has shouldered the legislative charge.
And he’s long made no secret of the cards in his hand. Back in December 2022, all 10 of his colleagues signed onto Peskin’s resolution explicitly spelling out how, even though Cruise and Waymo are regulated by the state, this city could make their progress through San Francisco feel like driving with the parking brake on.
And, he says, the next front will be SFO.
“Their entire M.O. is, ‘The state regulates us; we don’t have to work with you, we don’t have to partner with you,’” Peskin says. “My response is: There are things we do control. Including where you charge your cars. And the airport.”
“What I intend to do,” he continues, “is condition their deployment and use of the airport property on their meeting a number of conditions around meeting this city’s minimum standards for public safety and transit.”
Peskin said he’s still working out specific terms with the City Attorney and Municipal Transportation Agency — but would push for more information sharing, a cap on autonomous vehicles in the city or at least congested portions of the city and support for state-level rule-changes which would allow for things such as driverless vehicles to be cited or ticketed.
“I want to make it very clear,” he said, “that Waymo cannot refuse to be a good partner and have access to our lucrative airport — unless they work with us.”
So, the city’s gauntlet has been thrown down. And it remains to be seen how reasonable everyone is willing to be. Unlike private industry, the city doesn’t tend to move too fast. But breaking things? That, it can do.