CPUC approves 24-hour Cruise and Waymo robo-taxi services in California

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The CPUC, after a lengthy deliberation and public input, voted 8-2 in favor of the expansions

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The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) have greenlit the expansion of two competing robo-taxi services, Cruise and Waymo, to provide round-the-clock autonomous rides across San Francisco, according to a report published by CBS News on August 10.

The CPUC, after a lengthy deliberation and public input, voted 8-2 in favor of the expansions. This move positions San Francisco as the first major US city to host two fleets of driverless vehicles in competition with traditional human-operated ride-hailing and taxi services.

This decision was not without controversy, as both Cruise and Waymo have been grappling with technical glitches and safety concerns during their restricted testing phases over the past year. Although these robo-taxis have covered millions of miles without causing major accidents, they have encountered unexpected halts leading to roadblocks that hindered emergency response operations. Moreover, they have ventured into restricted areas, obstructing the flow of emergency vehicles.

San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson expressed reservations during a four-hour hearing, highlighting 55 instances of robo-taxis interfering with emergency responses. Concerns were raised that if these autonomous services were allowed to operate without constraints, potential disruptions could lead to harm, property damage and even loss of life.

The vote had previously been postponed twice over the summer due to the mounting reservations from various stakeholders. In the lead-up to the decision, public commentary included diverse perspectives, from disabled individuals hoping for enhanced mobility options to critics voicing concerns over public safety and the labor market impact.

While proponents lauded the robo-taxis as a leap toward technological advancement and a means to combat drunk driving, opponents criticized the technology as not yet ready for public deployment. They cited instances where these autonomous vehicles have posed safety risks and created disturbances, impeding emergency services.

Significance: Both Cruise and Waymo, owned by General Motors and spun off from Google's secret project, respectively, emphasized their safety records and improvements in addressing technical issues. The companies viewed this expansion as a stepping stone to introducing similar services in other congested urban centers.

Cruise disclosed its ongoing testing of 300 robo-taxis during daylight hours offering free rides, and 100 robo-taxis at night where fares were charged. Waymo similarly indicated its operation of about 100 of its 250 available robo-taxis providing free rides to volunteers and employees in San Francisco.

As the robo-taxi landscape evolves, the ongoing debate between technological advancement and public safety continues to unfold, with implications not only for San Francisco but also for future autonomous services in cities worldwide.

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