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Will Recent Collision Jeopardize Robotaxis in San Francisco?

A crash in San Francisco involving a driverless Cruise taxi happened at an inopportune time for autonomous vehicle companies, which were already under scrutiny by state regulators.

A self-driving Chevrolet Bolt by Cruise Automation undergoing testing in San Francisco.
Shutterstock/Michael Vi
(TNS) — Monday night's hit-and-run crash in San Francisco involving a driverless Cruise taxi happened at an inopportune time for the autonomous vehicle company, which was already under scrutiny by state regulators.

The incident is the first in the city where a crash involving a driverless vehicle resulted in severe injuries. A human driver at the intersection of Fifth and Market streets in downtown San Francisco struck a woman crossing the street before driving off. The collision hurled the pedestrian onto the path of an adjacent driverless Cruise taxi, which pinned her under its rear axle and a tire after running her over.

But, as authorities probe the crash — including assessing whether a human driver would have reacted any differently in the situation — it remains unclear how, or if, it would impact an investigation by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

Cruise is complying with the DMV's request to reduce its San Francisco fleet by half while the department investigates recent crashes involving its robotaxis. This includes a collision between a fire truck and a Cruise AV carrying a passenger that happened a week after state regulators approved Cruise and Waymo's expansion in August.

To date, driverless cars have not caused any deaths in San Francisco, and Monday's incident starkly contrasts past collisions involving Cruise's driverless taxis. Most of the 100 collisions Cruise reported to the DMV since 2021 have been low-speed collisions that resulted in no injuries.

State regulations require AV companies to report to the DMV any collision resulting in property damage, injury or death within 10 days of the incident, even if their robotaxis weren't at fault. In Cruise's case, such reported collisions can be as mundane as one of its driverless taxis sustaining minor damage from an errant skateboard on the street.

Several of these reported incidents have involved hit-and-run drivers who collided with Cruise vehicles, according to the company's reports. Before Monday, Cruise-involved collisions had resulted in minor injuries to pedestrians, cyclists or people riding scooters or skateboards in at least seven instances, none of which happened this year.

Still, the General Motors-owned company has had to defend its robotaxis' driving record several times since the California Public Utilities Commission permitted Cruise and Alphabet-owned Waymo's unrestricted commercial expansion in San Francisco.

Those approvals came amid fierce opposition from city officials who've been critical of instances where the companies' robotaxis interfere with traffic, transit, construction and emergency response efforts.

But nearly two months since the CPUC's Aug. 10 vote, the problems with robotaxi expansion that were feared by city officials have not materialized.

Waymo says it has tens of thousands of users in the city and offers paid driverless rides around the clock, though the majority of users currently can't hail a ride in the city's dense northeast quadrant during the day. Company spokesperson Chris Bonelli said Waymo plans to open access to the full city for all riders "in the coming weeks."

Cruise now operates no more than 50 driverless taxis during the day and 150 vehicles at night.

Reached for comment, the DMV said it met with Cruise representatives to get more information on Monday's incident, but did not elaborate. The department says it doesn't have a timeline for when it will complete its investigation.

The department repeated a statement it made in August: "Consistent with its regulations, the DMV reserves the right, following investigation of the facts, to suspend or revoke testing and/or deployment permits if there is determined to be an unreasonable risk to public safety."

"Cruise meets frequently with our regulators, including at the DMV, both proactively and reactively to answer questions and gather feedback," said company spokesperson Hannah Lindow. "We look forward to continuing to work with them closely to safely and responsibly deploy this technology."

Monday's incident also comes amid efforts by San Francisco officials to reverse the CPUC's decision altogether.

CPUC commissioners will discuss in closed session San Francisco's request for a rehearing on Cruise and Waymo's expansion at their Oct. 12 meeting.

Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the city attorney's office, said in an email that the city hasn't heard back from the CPUC about the two motions it filed — one for a rehearing, the other to suspend its expansion approval pending a rehearing.

Monday's incident, Kwart said, "is just a tragic, real world example of why we need the CPUC to step in and regulate AVs to protect public safety."

If San Francisco succeeds, the rules could revert to what they were before August, when neither company was allowed to charge for driverless rides during daylight hours.

But in order to get a rehearing, the city "must show the grounds on which (it) alleges legal error of the CPUC's decision," according to a commission spokesperson.

© 2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.