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California May Require Robotaxis to Share More Data

A frequent criticism by San Francisco officials as driverless robotaxis became common on city streets has been that California's laws and regulations have been slow to catch up to the new reality.

A Cruise robotaxi in San Francisco
A Cruise robotaxi undergoing testing in San Francisco in 2019. California shut down Cruise’s operations statewide in October after a string of high-profile accidents in San Francisco. (Michael Vi/Shutterstock)
(TNS) — A frequent criticism by San Francisco officials as driverless robotaxis became common on city streets has been that California's laws have been slow to catch up to reality.

Self-driving cars were stalling traffic, involved in collisions and interfering with first responders on local roads amid their sudden proliferation, officials said. But, they couldn't say to what extent the problems were occurring because autonomous vehicle companies aren't required to report the information to state regulators. Nor could officials determine how well robotaxi companies were performing as they pivoted to paid ride-hailing.

A new state bill aims to change that by requiring Waymo, Cruise and other AV companies entering California's driverless ride-hailing markets to report data to the state on any collisions and traffic violations involving their vehicles.

If passed, the proposal, which has support from San Francisco officials, would mark the first big update to the state's regulatory reporting requirements regarding autonomous vehicles since 2018.

In California, the state Department of Motor Vehicles oversees the testing and deployment permits that AV companies need to test and use their technologies without a human driver behind the wheel — whether it's a robotaxi or an autonomous truck.

Companies are now required to report collisions, mileage and "disengagements" — when an autonomous vehicle is manually taken over after a technical failure or safety risk — to the DMV only if they're using testing, not deployment, permits.

That subtle distinction last year led city officials to question whether robotaxi companies cherry-pick the crashes they report to the state. Only two companies, Waymo and Cruise, have been awarded deployment permits by the DMV, with dozens of other companies holding testing permits.

Supporters of the proposal say extending California's reporting requirements to deployment permits would capture performance data of robotaxis as they expand across the state and as more companies potentially join the emerging driverless ride-hailing market. This month, another regulator, the state Public Utilities Commission, approved Waymo's ride-hailing expansion to the Peninsula and Los Angeles.

"I'm supportive of the technology, I'm not trying to shut (robotaxis) down," said San Francisco Assembly Member Matt Haney, the bill's author. "But as they grow from testing to full deployment, there's a lot that's not being shared, and that hurts trust, it hurts transparency, and it hurts safety."

Specifically, Haney's bill requires companies to report all collisions, traffic violations and disengagements involving their driverless cars after they shift to deployment permits, including where the incidents happened.

Robotaxi companies could face daily fines of more than $26,315 if they don't immediately report such occurrences to the DMV, and also risk losing their permits, if the bill becomes law.

Companies "should welcome being judged on the actual performance of the vehicles," Haney said. "Right now, we don't have the data to be able to do that."

"Cruise is committed to engaging with regulators and stakeholders at all levels of government to help bring the benefits of autonomous vehicle technology to communities," Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow said in an email. "We have and will continue to participate in policy discussions about the future of transportation and how we can contribute to solutions that arise from the development of this technology."

Waymo didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reached for comment, the DMV said in an email that the department doesn't publicly weigh in on pending legislation.

Several other bills making their way through the legislature could change rules and regulations involving driverless vehicles. One proposal could give cities authority to fine AV companies for traffic violations involving their driverless cars. Another bill aims to give cities more local control over how robotaxi companies are allowed to commercially expand in their jurisdictions.

Over the past two years, San Francisco's transportation agencies and the Fire Department agencies have tried to document robotaxi disruptions to residents and first responders by informally collecting their own data.

It's an exercise officials said was born out of frustration over the dearth of data reported to state regulators, and one that doesn't truly tell the scope of autonomous vehicles' struggles and successes.

"This starts to fill some of these really common-sense data needs that we have for such an important and fast-developing sector," said Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

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