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S.F.’s Self-Driving Car Wars Intensify After Cruise Meltdown

Administrators for Cruise blamed the breakdown on “wireless connectivity issues,” due to an overload of cellphone usage at a large concert.

Following Friday night’s bewildering traffic jams in San Francisco, with Cruise driverless vehicles clogging the streets of North Beach and other neighborhoods, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said government agencies would ask the city attorney to file a petition requesting that the state revisit last week’s key approval expanding robotaxi service.

Peskin said the mayor’s office, Board of Supervisors, Fire Department, Municipal Transportation Agency and County Transportation Authority would join together in seeking to tighten regulation of the program that allows driverless cars to use city streets with and without fare-paying customers.

Peskin favors a more incremental approach than that of the California Public Utilities Commission, which on Thursday voted to lift all restrictions for Cruise and Waymo’s full commercialization in the city amid vocal opposition from city officials.

“This is just the beginning. It’s far from the end,” the supervisor told the Chronicle. “We need to get it right and we are trying to partner with Cruise and Waymo, which hasn’t been real smooth. They are very secretive.”

Peskin said the city would probably request redress from the CPUC decision, which allows driverless robotaxis to charge for service. Previously, the companies were allowed to pick up passengers but not charge for the service, as an experiment. The robotaxis may not exceed 35 mph.

The CPUC, which regulates robotaxis along with the Department of Motor Vehicles, allowed for full commercialization of a fleet that numbers 500 vehicles. On Friday night, as the massive Outside Lands music festival was underway in Golden Gate Park, cars operated by Cruise, a division of General Motors, suddenly stopped working and created a traffic jam of as many as 10 robotaxis on Grant Avenue in North Beach. Administrators for Cruise blamed the breakdown on “wireless connectivity issues,” due to an overload of cellphone usage at the concert.

Peskin said this appeared to be an inherent flaw in driverless car technology, suggesting that in the case of an emergency, when cell service goes down, the driverless cars will stop in place and prevent police and fire personnel from being able to get around the city.

“The take-home is a scary revelation in that if cellphone coverage goes out, they can’t communicate with their cars at the same time the city would be trying to maintain order,” Peskin said. “If you have an earthquake, they will be sitting like bricks on your street and there is no way to communicate with them at the precise moment you need them.”

Representatives of Cruise did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Peskin noted that Waymo vehicles were still functioning on Friday night.

Peskin said that the city has documented 55 incidents involving driverless cars interfering with first responders this year alone. The tally may be higher, he said, but the companies do not share their own tally of incidents. He said that when the Board of Supervisors returns in September, after its summer recess, he expects he and his colleagues will take action to slow down or walk back the CPUC approval. The state agency is under the authority of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appoints commissioners.

“It is time for Gov. Newsom to weigh in for public safety before somebody gets killed,” Peskin said.

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.