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Robotaxis Escape Local Regulation in California

A business group backed by robot-taxi companies is celebrating the demise of a proposed California law that would have let cities regulate the autonomous vehicles and fine them for breaking traffic laws.

The Zoox L5 Fully Autonomous, All-electric Robotaxi in San Francisco
Zoox L5 Fully Autonomous, All-electric Robotaxi
Courtesy Zoox
(TNS) — A business group backed by robot-taxi companies is celebrating the demise of a proposed California law that would have let cities regulate the controversial autonomous vehicles and fine them for breaking traffic laws.

"The bill would have prevented safety and accessibility opportunities for millions of Californians," said the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, a group representing driverless taxi companies Waymo and Cruise, along with Uber and UPS.

State Sen. Dave Cortese pulled his Senate Bill 915 on Monday after a legislative analysis for the Assembly's transportation committee proposed amendments that he said Tuesday would have gutted its provisions for localized control.

"The elected officials best equipped to direct reasonable safety precautions are at the local level," Cortese said.

Critics had pointed to the specter of a patchwork of local regulations making it impossible for robotaxis to operate easily across boundaries and effectively serve public needs. The committee analysis said the bill would provide "unnecessary local control" over autonomous vehicles and possibly lead to "policing for profit" among municipalities targeting the vehicles as a revenue source.

Cortese said an amendment to the bill, which limited initial regulation of robotaxis to cities of 250,000 or larger, with smaller neighboring cities allowed to replicate the ordinances, addressed the concerns about fragmentation. The bill expressly prohibited cities from banning the vehicles, and any mayor who tried to ban them in practice by dramatically limiting their numbers would face overwhelming public pushback, he said.

The bill grew out of a legal quirk that puts control over deployment and operations of autonomous taxis in the hands of state agencies, with local governments lacking a say or an ability to levy fines if the vehicles violate laws. That centralized control, combined with a history of mayhem by robotaxis operating in San Francisco, have made some municipalities wary of the technology.

Under state law, the California Public Utilities Commission — which regulates passenger carriers including ride-hailing firms like Uber and Lyft, but not regular taxis — and the Department of Motor Vehicles oversee the deployment and operations of robotaxis.

The commission in March approved Google spinoff Waymo's request to operate robotaxis on the Peninsula — an expansion supported by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Mountain View and Palo Alto chambers of commerce, and some advocacy non-profits, including those for disabled people and bicyclists. San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa blasted the approval as "egregious" and claimed it showed the commission and Waymo did not care about "the public safety of residents."

In San Francisco, state authorities allowed a robotaxi rollout despite opposition from the city government. General Motors' Cruise vehicles, blamed for most of San Francisco's subsequent robotaxi problems, were shut down by the DMV in October over what the agency described as an "unreasonable risk to the public."

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a probe of 22 accidents involving Waymo robotaxis in Arizona, including reports of "collisions with stationary and semi-stationary objects such as gates and chains, collisions with parked vehicles, and instances in which the (cars) appeared to disobey traffic safety control devices."

Waymo, in a statement Tuesday, said it provided more than 50,000 trips per week "in some of the most challenging and complex environments," and that it would continue to work with the traffic safety administration.

The company said the scuttling of Cortese's bill "preserves the ability for Californians to continue enjoying the benefits of AVs." Waymo said it would work with regulators and policy makers as it "safely and thoughtfully" expands its service.

Cortese said he believes robotaxi expansion will lead to tragedies, and generate public anger over the vehicles getting in people's way. He would bring the bill back, or support a fellow legislator who did, he said.

"The community needs to be safe," Cortese said.

© 2024 Silicon Valley, San Jose, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.