The California Public Utilities Commission—a state agency that regulates power, water, and telecommunications companies, as well as movers, taxicabs, rideshare services, and self-driving cars—is headquartered in a large, curved building on Van Ness Avenue, in San Francisco, that looks a bit like a sun visor. Last Thursday morning, a small group of protesters gathered on the steps in advance of the commission’s vote on whether to allow the autonomous-vehicle companies Cruise and Waymo to expand their fleets, and charge for rides, like a taxi service, in the city. A man holding a megaphone denounced corporate greed, while other people unfurled hand-painted banners. One depicted a dead dog lying in the street—possibly a reference to the small dog killed earlier this summer by a Waymo car. Another showed an autonomous vehicle in flames bearing down on a crowd of firemen, police officers, and taxi-drivers. “Shut the robos down,” the protesters cried.
Members of Cruise’s public-affairs team held a press conference off to the side. Nearby, another demonstration, organized by Waymo, was forming. People wearing yellow shirts that read “safer roads for all” were congregating behind Tim Elder, the president of the California chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, as he addressed a row of cameras, touting the benefits of autonomous vehicles, or A.V.s, for blind passengers.
Earlier in the week, the commission had met with representatives from the city’s fire department, police department, and public-transit system, who had voiced their opposition to expanding autonomous-vehicle service. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Planning Department had also objected. Among their concerns was the lack of publicly available data about the cars and their operations. Although the A.V. companies do share some data with regulators, they do not disclose data about individual accidents, citing confidentiality concerns. [Continue reading…]