At around 11:00pm on Friday night, reports emerged that up to 10 driverless Cruise vehicles had unexpectedly stopped around the area of Vallejo Street in North Beach. According to reports, some of the vehicles were blocking a pair of narrow streets in the middle of the city's bar and restaurant district. This caused traditional vehicles driven by humans to become trapped, with some unable to move for 15 minutes or more.
During that time, the robotaxis could not be moved and traffic in the area came to a complete standstill. The vehicles stayed in place with their parking lights flashing for around 15 minutes before waking up and proceeding along their route.
According to the company, a music festival known as Outside Lands being held a few miles away caused cell phone service issues that prevented them from routing the vehicles effectively.
Just a day before, the city had voted to allow these vehicles to operate around the clock. Prior to the vote, Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, and another company, Waymo – owned by Google's Alphabet – could only offer limited service under certain conditions. Now, however, they can charge fares for their services at all hours and grow their fleet as much as they wish thanks to the 3-1 vote. Cruise expects to deploy thousands of robotaxis in San Francisco as a result.
A representative of North Beach for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Aaron Peskin, said that he is concerned about what might happen if a major emergency takes place and these vehicles block escape routes or prevent emergency services from accessing those who need their assistance.
One of the three votes in favor of the expansion came from Commissioner John Reynolds, who previously worked as a head lawyer for Cruise before California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed him to the California Public Utilities Commission.
Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma voted against it, saying that the companies involved needed to explain how they intend to fix the problems with their vehicles first.
Several groups opposed expanding the robotaxi services, and San Francisco's fire and police departments were among those who spoke out against the move. At a hearing, fire, police and municipal transportation agency officials shared a report outlining at least 600 incidents that had taken place involving driverless vehicles. Some of the offenses included obstructing travel to an emergency, vehicle contact with personnel or equipment, and unpredictable operations near emergency response zones.
In their report, they noted that a fire can double in size in just one minute, and every second can mean the difference between life or death.
The president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, Tracy McCray, said: “The time that it takes for an officer or any other public safety employee to try and interact with an autonomous vehicle is frustrating in the best-case scenario, but when they can not comprehend our demands to move to the side of the roadway and are stopped in the middle of the roadway blocking emergency response units, then it rises to another level of danger.”
According to Peskin, city officials are seeking ways to reverse the decision, and a court injunction is one option on the table. Another potential solution is fining the companies thousands of dollars each time one of their robotaxis blocks a road.
Many people who have witnessed incidents with these robotaxis have shared them on social media. An X (formerly Twitter) user, for example, recently shared a video showing one of the Cruise vehicles almost running over a family who was using a crosswalk during the weekend. Another user described the traffic jam incident on Friday night as a “complete meltdown.”
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