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Waymo Eyes Bay Area Expansion as San Francisco Sues to Stop It

The company leading the robotaxi race wants to expand driverless ride-hailing to Los Angeles and 22 Bay Area cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — even as San Francisco is suing to rein in its expansion.

(TNS) — The company leading the robotaxi race wants to expand driverless ride-hailing to Los Angeles and 22 Bay Area cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — even as San Francisco is suing to rein in its expansion.

Last year marked an inflection point for self-driving cars in California, as Alphabet-owned Waymo and General Motors-owned Cruise got regulatory approval to expand their driverless ride-hailing in San Francisco.

The two companies are operating in different trajectories nearly six months after the California Public Utilities Commission's Aug. 10 decision. Cruise remains suspended indefinitely after one of its robotaxis dragged a pedestrian during a severe crash in downtown San Francisco and the company allegedly misled regulators about the incident.

Waymo, meanwhile, has continued its gradual expansion in the city, giving the company a firm grasp over driverless ride-hailing in San Francisco, the first California city to host autonomous vehicles.

Last Friday, Mountain View-based Waymo applied to the PUC, which regulates commercial robotaxi service in California, to expand its paid driverless operations to a swath of Peninsula cities including Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Mateo, as well as much of Los Angeles County.

Another state regulator, the Department of Motor Vehicles, gave Waymo approval on Jan. 11 to operate on highways and city streets in a service area spanning San Francisco to Sunnyvale, according to the company's PUC application.

But the expansion of robotaxis in the past year highlighted tensions over local control. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, officials want more say over how autonomous vehicles operate in their cities. City officials have said they are powerless to respond to robotaxi incidents that interfere with first responders or impede traffic and public transit.

In December, City Attorney David Chiu filed a lawsuit against the PUC at the state's Court of Appeal in an attempt to relitigate the commission's decision to allow Cruise and Waymo to operate fully driverless ride-hailing at all hours in San Francisco. Chiu also filed a separate suit at the California Supreme Court, alleging the PUC's decision ran afoul of the state's environmental laws.

Those lawsuits, first reported by the Washington Post, follow a failed attempt by the city to obtain a PUC rehearing. In Sacramento, a state lawmaker representing San Jose introduced a bill that would give local cities the power to regulate robotaxi operations, instead.

Whether those efforts will succeed is unclear.

"We are disappointed that the City has chosen to appeal the CPUC's previous decision, however, we remain confident in our ability to continue safely serving San Francisco's visitors and residents," Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina said in a statement. "We have continually demonstrated our deep willingness and longtime commitment to work in partnership with California state regulators, S.F. city officials and first responders and continue to stand by that approach."

Chiu acknowledged in a statement that, "Given the information we have, Waymo has a superior track record to Cruise." City officials say, however, that they can't truly assess how robotaxis are faring because of limited data companies are required to report on incidents and activity.

"Poor AV performance has caused serious problems on San Francisco streets, jeopardizing public safety and emergency response," Chiu said. "Based on this experience, San Francisco disagrees with the CPUC's decision to allow for unfettered expansion of AVs on our streets without any measures to protect public safety."

Even if regulators grant Waymo access to the Peninsula, their robotaxis might not be carrying passengers on freeways anytime soon, based on the company's history operating in Arizona.

Waymo's robotaxis operate in a large portion of metro Phoenix, largely with the support of local officials. Though the company launched driverless ride-hailing there in 2020, its robotaxis still don't take passengers on freeways, opting to drive solely on local streets. The company announced this month that it would begin testing driverless ride-hailing on freeways after years of testing with a human driver behind the wheel.

Though it can do so, Waymo has not yet expanded paid driverless rides to San Francisco freeways. The company, however, has been testing on those roadways with safety drivers.

San Francisco International Airport officials confirmed last year that Waymo sought permission to map roads in and surrounding the airport as it seeks to eventually bring its driverless ride-hailing service to the region's busiest airport.

Such an expansion would be a major victory for the company. Waymo taxis already operate service to Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix — a destination that fuels the company's demand in that market.

But SFO is overseen by the city of San Francisco, not the state, and city officials have suggested that they want more authority over robotaxis as a precondition to them operating at the airport.

"I'm being very candid and straightforward about it — I'm using that as an opportunity to try to force a more collaborative relationship with Waymo," Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors, told the Chronicle in November. "And if they take us up on it, great. And if they don't, then I'm going to have the Board of Supervisors keep them off the airport until they do."

©2024 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.