San Francisco feeling left out of conversation about AVs

Industry

With one conspicuous omission, everything and everyone that moves on San Francisco’s streets fall under the purview of Jeffrey Tumlin.

The director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is responsible for the city’s municipal railway, traffic engineering, bicycle and pedestrian safety, taxi regulations, accessibility and more.

Yet Tumlin is a bystander with no authority when it comes to a seminal transportation development — the arrival of commercially operating robotaxis.

“We can’t even write citations on those vehicles,” he told Automotive News.

The absence of city-level authority stymied his efforts last year to address concerns ranging from drop-off locations to accessibility issues, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s opposition to Cruise’s commercial deployment application went unheeded by state regulators. They green-lighted the company’s service June 2, the first such commercial offering allowed.

San Francisco’s streets are playing a formative role in the commercial deployment of self-driving technology. Competitors such as Waymo and Zoox are gearing up to join Cruise there. Many are watching how the relationship between government and industry progresses, especially with city officials wanting a role in determining what happens on their streets.

It’s an unrequited relationship to date.

“We’re trying to reach out and be good partners, and we’re having a hard time getting the level of engagement we’d like,” Tumlin said. His department wants better communication from Cruise and other AV companies to determine how the transportation agency can make technology work in a way that benefits both the private and public sector, and in a way that minimizes potential harm, he said.

Cruise said it considers its relationship with the San Francisco Municipal Tranportation Agency a good one.

“We have a transparent relationship with our regulators and speak with them on a frequent and consistent basis,” Drew Pusateri, a Cruise spokesman, said in a written statement.

But in California, as in many other states, regulations and policies that address autonomous-vehicle deployments are enacted at the state level. To launch commercial driverless service, a company needs permits from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees consumer safety. That shuts out agencies such as the San Francisco Municipal Tranportation Agency.

Last year, the agency opposed Cruise’s application to the commission because it documented Cruise vehicles picking up and dropping off passengers in the travel lane rather than pulling to the curb during pre-commercial testing, a practice Tumlin said does not comply with city traffic codes.

More than a month into Cruise’s commercial operations, he said the company’s inability or inaction on that issue presents safety hazards and portends larger problems.

“Once Cruise comes to proper scale, that is extremely bad for traffic congestion,” he said. “It literally wipes out half the street capacity of San Francisco. Cruise, at scale, picking up and dropping off only in the travel lane is like removing the Bay Bridge in terms of traffic capacity. It’s a really big deal.”

Cruise disputed the notion that its actions are problematic, unsafe or illegal. Further, Pusateri said the company’s vehicles are capable of curbside pickups and drop-offs, and do so whenever possible. Multiple videos provided by Cruise showed its robotaxis pulling to the curb as part of commercial operations conducted in June and July.

Pusateri said Cruise vehicles sometimes conduct their stops in the travel lane like other commercial entities, such as FedEx or Amazon, and that such stops for commercial purposes are permissible under California vehicle code.

It’s an issue others are watching within San Francisco and beyond.

“It’s really concerning,” said Sindhu Bharadwaj, policy analyst at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “There’s a lot of examples of what happens in one city is the future of what happens everywhere.”

Bharadwaj, whose organization represents 92 North American cities, said autonomous vehicle operations and regulation have now joined infrastructure improvements as a top policy issue for the association.

Cities once feared federal AV legislation would preempt their traditional authority to manage their streets. As those efforts fizzled and state laws either stayed in place or were enacted, those fears dissipated. But with few exceptions, Bharadwaj said cities realized a regulatory “blank space” wasn’t much better.

“We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric from companies, and Cruise in San Francisco is a good example, that they’ll operate in a way that’s safer than human drivers,” Bharadwaj said. “But the pulling-to-the-curb issue raises the question of whether they’re just reproducing the same mistakes human drivers are making. There needs to be a system for ensuring the promises they’ve been making for a long time are actually delivered upon.”

One potential solution is agreed-upon sharing of data from everyday operations. It could be modeled on the Mobility Data Specification, which allows scooter services to share standardized information on vehicle whereabouts and frequency of operation with city transportation departments.

It could help cities understand how AVs bolster late-night transportation options, their vehicle miles traveled and their role in alleviating or causing congestion. Beyond those everyday mileposts, data could provide insight into safety concerns or incidents.

Even for city officials, information on incidents or collisions can be difficult to obtain. On June 28, Cruise vehicles clustered at a busy intersection in San Francisco and they blocked traffic for hours until humans removed them. Tumlin said he learned of that incident from 911 calls, the city’s Department of Emergency Management and media reports.

“Those vehicles blocked traffic on one of our most important arterials, and it wasn’t until sometime later we realized this was a systemic problem across much of the city,” Tumlin said. An alleged Cruise whistleblower told regulators such clusters occur with regularity.

In April, a city police officer pulled over a Cruise vehicle for traveling without headlights at night. The vehicle then repositioned itself, pulling away from the officer, before the traffic stop was complete.

Later that month, a Cruise vehicle blocked the path of a San Francisco Fire Department truck en route to a blaze that resulted in injuries and property damage.

Tumlin worries that incident is not an isolated one but rather a component of an ongoing problem.

“The fire department and emergency response will tell you that seconds matter in getting trucks and ambulances to the scene of an emergency, and we’re seeing a steady degradation in response times,” he said.

Because Tumlin cannot get data from companies operating in his jurisdiction, he cannot pinpoint a precise reason for those slower response times. It might be overall ride-hailing services, an influx of autonomous vehicles or a rise in delivery services. The result is the same.

“But we know it’s happening,” he said, “and we can observe a dramatic increase in all kinds of pickup and drop-off activity in the traffic lane.”

In some respects, the arrival of AVs into cities is reminiscent of how ride-hailing companies commenced operations more than a decade ago, often operating without regulatory approval. But it’s different in other key ways, including the absence of headstrong entrepreneurs like Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

“There are no Travis Kalanicks in the autonomous-vehicle industry, and we’re grateful for that,” Tumlin said. “We do believe the AV companies are trying to work in good faith, and we are eager to build a stronger trust relationship so we can partner, and cities can help the technology advance and markets thrive.”

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