Driverless Cars Are Causing Havoc in San Francisco, Residents Say

In recent incident, driverless car killed a dog

Driverless Cars Are Causing Havoc in San Francisco, Residents Say
A Cruise self-driving taxi, seen in a file photo. (Courtesy of Cruise via Benzinga)
Bryan Jung

Driverless cars have been causing havoc in the streets of San Francisco over the past year, much to the annoyance of local residents.

The self-driving vehicles have become common in the Bay Area, after two tech firms, Cruise and Waymo, were given permission by local authorities several months ago to test their new vehicles on the city's streets.

Currently, as many as 400 self-driving cars are roaming the streets of the city, in a bid to revolutionize road transport.

Similar pilots are taking place in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.

Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, is testing the bulk of its 240 Chevy Bolt electric cars in San Francisco, GM spokeswoman Elizabeth Conway told USA Today, while Google's Waymo is operating "a couple hundred" electric Jaguars in the city, according to a spokeswoman.

Other lesser-known contenders like, Zoox, and AutoX have also tested their vehicles in the Bay Area, but Cruise and Waymo have drawn the most attention from local authorities.

At least 53 companies are currently working on self-driving cars, with additional start-ups expected.

Tech Companies Claim Automated Cars Are Safer

Self-driving vehicle advocates have long promised safe and less congested streets, along with lower carbon emissions.

However, critics argue that automation would unintentionally invite mayhem on the streets, worsen traffic jams, and boost overall passenger volume on the roads.

Surprised San Franciscans are beginning to wake up to the experiments taking place on their roads and fear that the self-driving cars are endangering their safety, reported SFGATE on June 6, calling the autonomous cars "incompetent."

The automated vehicles have been responsible for various incidents, like causing rush hour traffic to grind to a halt, driving through police crime scenes, blocking firetrucks, and even hitting city buses.

A regular stream of photos, videos, and news reports posted on social media reveal the disruption the cars are causing to local traffic.

Other residents have found the cars to be amusing and not as threatening as the human drivers they encounter. Resident Anthony Russell told SFGATE he witnessed a "whole spectacle" involving a group of ranchers trying to move a stalled Waymo by "whooping and waving at it as if they were wrangling some cattle."

Meanwhile, software engineer Barak Gila told Bicycling magazine in March that he has “never had a self-driving car behave unsafely.” And it wasn't a self-driving car that bumped him two years ago; it was a human-driven Porsche whose blind spot detector missed the cyclist.

However, the same article that quoted Gila cited a 2018 accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a self-driving Uber vehicle became confused and failed to stop for a grandmother crossing the street with a bicycle, fatally striking her. Uber shuttered its automated vehicle division in 2020.

SF Authorities Try to Put on the Brakes

Both Waymo and Cruise have the goal of offering driverless rides to the public. Currently, however, most of the cars rove San Francisco's streets on their own, conducting test drives. A few offer free or for-hire rides.

The city's transportation agencies are increasingly opposed to further expansion, arguing that automated cars continue to endanger pedestrians, drivers, and emergency personnel.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) sent a letter to CPUC in January after the test vehicles repeatedly interfered with public transportation routes.

The SFMTA letter listed 92 reported incidents involving AVs from May 29 through Dec. 31 of last year.

At least 88 percent of incidents took place on key roads where public transport and cars carry tens of thousands of passengers each day.

The SFMTA reported that AVs would often signal one way then abruptly go the other, or stall and force human drivers to move around them by veering onto the sidewalk.

Waymo traffic incidents skyrocketed to about 30 per month in March and April, according to an SFMTA report in May.

Even when AVs are not directly interfering with traffic, the cars raise concerns about their decision-making ability. A November 2021 letter from the SFMTA to CPUC responded to videos produced by Cruise to demonstrate the performance of its cars. In the videos, the Cruise vehicles repeatedly picked up and dropped off passengers by double-parking rather than pulling over to the curb.

“Rather than demonstrating driving superior to human driving, the Cruise Videos elevate passenger convenience over the safety and convenience of all road users,” wrote the SFMTA.

AVs Interfere With Emergency Service

Stephen Chun, a spokesperson for the SFMTA, told SFGATE that on average, a single, stranded AV can disrupt traffic for up to 180 minutes. Chun said his agency has received three times as many complaints over the past three months as it did in December of last year.

“In the short term, we need AVs to demonstrate that they can operate on our streets without creating new hazards,” he said.

There have also been multiple instances in which Cruise and Waymo AVs have interfered with emergency services, even preventing firefighters from performing their tasks at the scene.

One of the most notorious episodes happened in March, after major wind storms knocked down trees and overhead trolley wires.

Two Cruise vehicles drove straight through fire department tape and became entangled in downed cables.

“If they want us to believe things are getting better, they should give us data to demonstrate that, because that is not what we are seeing from calls to 911 and reports from SF Fire Department and Muni personnel," added Chun.

Over the past year, 911 emergency dispatchers have gotten calls from people who claimed that “erratic” AVs were blocking lanes or would suddenly stop in the middle of the road.

In February, in response to the incidents, Cruise released a list of resources specifically for local emergency personnel use.

Regulators Expand Program Despite Objections

Although city officials are preparing to put the brakes on AV tests due to safety concerns, tech companies are expanding their programs, with the support of CPUC, which has historically been generous in granting permits to self-driving car companies.

The resulting back and forth is reminiscent of what happens when an AV refuses to budge on a congested street.

Last month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted against an already approved garage for Waymo employees in the city, reported SFGATE.
Despite the city's complaints, the CPUC gave Cruise permission last June to test 30 autonomous vehicles for passenger use in San Francisco, and allowed it to start charging for rides.
A few months later, on Nov. 18, 2022, the CPUC authorized Waymo to operate its experimental vehicles in the Bay Area, as part of the state's driverless pilot program.
Optimistically described as a “milestone” by CPUC, Waymo was also given the green light to autonomously drive passengers throughout San Francisco and out to Daly City, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale for free test rides.
On Dec. 16, Cruise was allowed to expand its fleet to 100 vehicles across the city (pdf) and increase its scope and hours of operation. And in February, CPUC authorized (pdf) both Cruise and Waymo to collect fares from passengers.
Further, two draft resolutions to grant the companies approval for 24/7 operation and expanded service areas are scheduled for a hearing on June 29, TechCrunch reported.

“Regulators need to know about the failures and problems,” Chun said, and “not just the benefits that we all hope for.”

For now, it appears that the CPUC will grant the driverless car companies full, unfettered access to the city's streets in the near future, leaving municipal authorities little room except to observe the tests.

“We are proud of our publicly reported safety record which includes driving millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment. Interacting properly with emergency personnel is important to us, which is why we maintain an open line of communication with first responders to receive feedback and discuss specific incidents to improve our response,” a Cruise spokesperson told SFGATE, responding to complaints about safety.

The spokesperson said that out of the 2 million miles driven, none of the AVs have caused any serious injuries or fatalities.

A similar response was given by Waymo, which said that the public’s lack of trust in their vehicles is due to a lack of familiarity with the new technology and the company's safety record.

Meanwhile, a Waymo self-driving car killed a small dog that ran in front of it on May 21. "The Waymo AV then made contact with the dog, which did not survive," reads a California DMV report. (pdf) The vehicle sustained damage.
Bryan S. Jung is a native and resident of New York City with a background in politics and the legal industry. He graduated from Binghamton University.