San Francisco sues California over ‘unsafe,’ ‘disruptive’ self-driving cars

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SAN FRANCISCO — In the most aggressive attempt yet to reduce the number of self-driving vehicles in this city, San Francisco filed a lawsuit against a state commission that allowed Google and General Motors’ autonomous car companies to expand here this summer, despite causing a pattern of “serious problems” on the streets.

The lawsuit, which has not been previously reported and was filed in December, sends a strong message from the nation’s tech capital: autonomous vehicles are not welcome here until they are more vigorously regulated.

It’s yet another blow for the rapidly evolving self-driving car industry, which flocked to San Francisco hoping to find a prominent testing ground that would legitimize it around the United States. Instead, the two major companies — Google-owned Waymo and General Motors-Owned Cruise — have largely been cast aside by the city as an unwelcome nuisance and a public safety hazard.

The lawsuit essentially asks the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to review whether its August decision, which allowed Waymo to operate 24/7 paid taxi service around the city, was compliant with the law. This legal action does not impact Cruise, as it already lost its permits to operate in California last year after one of its cars struck a jaywalking pedestrian and dragged her for about 20 feet.

Experts say City Attorney David Chiu is attempting to make a tricky legal case, and are skeptical on how successful he will ultimately be in getting the commission to revisit its decision. But, if the city attorney gets his way, Waymo could be forced to roll back its expansion until California rethinks the way it governs autonomous vehicles. That move could inspire dozens of other states — such as Texas and Nevada — where autonomous vehicles have been deployed.

“As driverless AVS expanded in San Francisco, members of the public and city officials identified hundreds of safety incidents, including interference with first responders,” according to the lawsuit, filed Dec. 11 in a California appellate court. “Despite these serious safety incidents, and over the objections of San Francisco, the commission approved requests by Cruise and Waymo to operate.”

In a statement, Julia Ilina, a spokesperson for Waymo, said the company is “disappointed” that the city has chosen to appeal the commission’s decision.

“However, we remain confident in our ability to continue safely serving San Francisco’s visitors and residents,” Ilina said. “We have continually demonstrated our deep willingness and longtime commitment to work in partnership with California state regulators, San Francisco city officials and first responders and continue to stand by that approach.”

A spokesperson for the CPUC said it will “respond to all claims through its pleadings and statements” through the courts. A spokesperson for Cruise declined to comment.

Chiu’s legal action is the culmination of months of frustration among San Francisco leaders, who have no control over autonomous vehicles because the industry is controlled by the state. City officials have spent months trying to halt the expansion by highlighting a slew of issues caused by the vehicles, and also unsuccessfully asked the CPUC for a rehearing last year. This legal action against the CPUC is now one of the only concrete actions the city could take.

Waymo and Cruise have both cited self-reported data that their robot cars have a superior track record to human drivers, and say their technology will eventually usher in a future with fewer road deaths and injuries. Still, over the past year, the cars have caused major headaches around the city — from disrupting traffic by stopping short or breaking down in the middle of the road, to once rolling over a fire hose at an emergency scene.

Then, in a particularly egregious incident in October, a Cruise car rolled over a pedestrian and dragged her about 20 feet. That accident — and Cruise’s initial misrepresentation over the events — prompted the California Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend Cruise’s driverless permits. The company has since stopped testing its autonomous cars around the country, and has faced significant turmoil, including layoffs and the resignation of its CEO.

Waymo has not caused as many high-profile incidents in San Francisco as Cruise, and the complaint said the Google sister company “appears to be operating a limited fleet” in the city. Still, according to the complaint, “the public’s safety should not be subject to voluntary actions by regulated entities, and Waymo could ramp up operations at any time.”

Waymo currently has 250 registered cars in its San Francisco fleet, though all of them are not in service at once, Ilina said.

According to the lawsuit, the city is asking the CPUC to reconsider the permits for Waymo and also “develop reporting requirements, safety benchmarks, and other needed public safety regulations” that would address “serious incidents involving first responders, street traffic interference, and disruption of public transportation.”

Matthew Wansley, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who specializes in emerging automotive technologies, said while he agrees with San Francisco leaders that local governments should have more control over autonomous vehicles, he thinks the arguments in the lawsuit are “weak on the merits.” Ultimately, he said, autonomous vehicles “should be held to the same standards as human drivers.”

“We should crack down on technology that makes the roads less safe and encourage technology that makes the roads safer,” he said.

The CPUC and Waymo have until Feb. 16 to file an opposition brief. Chiu also filed another lawsuit in California’s Supreme Court, which argues that the CPUC also failed to act appropriately by refusing to conduct a review of the environmental impacts of its decision under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“San Francisco believes that autonomous vehicles will be a beneficial part of our city’s future, but in the meantime, while allowing this technology to develop, we must act to protect the safety of our residents and visitors,” Chiu said in a statement. “Poor AV performance has caused serious problems on San Francisco streets, jeopardizing public safety and emergency response.”

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