Driverless taxis are putting the brakes on some cities
By Yiwen Lu
Santa Fe New Mexican
SAN FRANCISCO — About 2 a.m. March 19, Adam Wood, a San Francisco firefighter on duty, received a 911 call and raced to the city’s Mission neighborhood to help a male who was having a medical emergency. After loading the patient into an ambulance, a black-and-white car pulled up and blocked the path. It was a driverless vehicle operated by Waymo, an autonomous car company that Google’s parent, Alphabet, owned. With no human driver to instruct to move out of the way, Wood spoke through a device in the car to a remote operator, who said someone would come take the vehicle away. Instead, another autonomous Waymo car arrived and blocked the other side of the street, Wood said. The ambulance was finally able to leave after being forced to back up, and the patient, who was not in critical condition, made it to the hospital. But the self-driving cars added seven minutes to the emergency response, he said. “All that was lost time for no reason,” Wood, 55, said. His experience was a sign of how self-driving taxis are increasingly starting to take a toll on city services. In San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where passengers can hail autonomous vehicles, the cars have slowed down emergency response times, caused accidents, increased congestion and added to the workloads of local officials, said police officers, firefighters and other city employees. In San Francisco, more than 600 self-driving vehicle incidents were documented from June 2022 to June 2023, according to the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency. After one episode where a driverless car from Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, ran over and dragged a pedestrian, California regulators ordered the company to suspend its service last month. Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s CEO, resigned Sunday. In Austin, city officials said there were 52 autonomous car incidents from July 8 to Oct. 24, including a first-of-its-kind crash by a prototype robotaxi with no steering wheel into a “small electrical building.” To handle the fallout, San Francisco has designated at least one city employee to work on autonomous car policies and asked two transportation agencies to compile and manage a database of incidents based on 911 calls, social media posts and employee reports. This summer, Austin also formed an internal task force to help log driverless vehicle incidents. “A lot of people on the task force are juggling this as well as other normal day-to-day operations,” said Matthew McElearney, a training captain at the Austin Fire Department. “In my job description, it doesn’t say ‘a task force member.’ ” San Francisco and Austin offer a preview of what to expect in other places. While self-driving cars have been tested in more than two dozen U.S. cities over the years, those trials have moved into a newer phase where human drivers — who once rode along on autonomous vehicle rides — no longer stay in the cars during rides. Waymo and Cruise then started offering fully driverless taxi services in some cities with those cars. Cruise has since suspended its autonomous vehicle operations. But Waymo and others continue developing and testing their cars in potential markets and the technology will spread, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who has advised the federal government on automated driving. Cruise had tested its driverless taxis in San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix and planned to expand to Houston, Dallas and Miami. Waymo, which provides driverless rides in Phoenix and San Francisco, said it would next roll out its services in Los Angeles and Austin. Zoox, another self-driving car company, said it planned to introduce robotaxis in San Francisco and Las Vegas, Nev., but did not provide a time frame. Some cities said their experience with robotaxis had been smoother. Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, where Waymo has run autonomous taxi services since 2020, said the company met extensively with local officials and conducted safety tests before deploying a fleet of 200 vehicles to locations including the airport. “Our residents have generally really appreciated this service,” she said. Waymo, Cruise and Zoox said they had worked closely with officials in many cities and continued to improve their vehicles to minimize the effects on local services. Waymo added that it had “no evidence of our vehicles blocking an ambulance” March 19 in San Francisco.