Being a called a “backseat driver” takes on a whole new meaning

The streets of San Francisco, renowned for their iconic cable cars and sprawling urban environment, are witnessing the emergence of a new player in the transportation landscape: robotaxis. These autonomous vehicles promise convenience and efficiency, but their integration into the city’s fabric creates a complex interplay between regulation and public opinion.  

The robotaxi industry in San Francisco represents a significant step towards the future of transportation. As a hub for innovation, San Francisco has become a hotspot for companies aiming to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles for commercial ride-hailing services. Companies like Waymo and Cruise are actively involved in the city’s robotaxi industry. A subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, Waymo has been testing and deploying autonomous vehicles in specific areas of San Francisco, offering a limited robotaxi service to a select group of users. Cruise, under the control of General Motors (“GM”), extensively tested its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco and aims to launch a commercial robotaxi service in the city, leveraging its partnership with GM for manufacturing and deployment. 

In early August this year, the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) approved a significant expansion for the two autonomous ride-hailing companies to operate 24-hours across San Francisco. Previously, the companies were only allowed to operate with limitations like specific hours of operation and restricted location ranges. For Waymo and Cruise, this expansion signifies a massive win. However, this new approval has sparked various public opinions on regulation and public safety.

These autonomous vehicles promise convenience and efficiency, but their integration into the city’s fabric creates a complex interplay between regulation and public opinion. 

Supporters of driverless vehicles vehemently defend the technology as “a leap forward that will keep San Francisco on the cutting edge of technology while helping more disabled people who are unable to drive to get around town and reducing the risks posed by drunk driving.” San Franciscan, Jessie Wolinsky, who is blind and has been harassed by Uber and Lyft drivers, said that “[Waymo] had provided me with a level of safety that I’ve never experienced before.” Some people even believe that the level of safety these cars have is better than that of human drivers. An orthopedic surgeon, familiar with many serious injuries involving humans, said, “I see how these cars behave, and I trust them much more than angry drivers or distracted drivers.”  

Those who oppose the vehicles and the expansion of their operations claim that the vehicles are “annoying nuisances at best and dangerous menaces at worst.”  Both traditional rideshare companies and municipal authorities dislike the autonomous vehicles because they threaten the rideshare market or can be nuisances when they break down. These frustrations led to the emergence of an anonymous activist group called the “Safe Street Rebels.” They have deliberately tried to immobilize the vehicles by placing orange traffic cones on top of the vehicle. This act, “coning,” disables the cars by exploiting a glitch in the car’s systems when a traffic cone is placed on the car’s hood. 

Although the autonomous ride-hailing expansion is less than a month old, there are some change, namely restrictions. The San Francisco City Attorney, David Chiu, urged state regulators to reconsider their approval of driverless taxis operating in the city as both residents and city officials object to the CPUC’s decision. Simultaneously, many residents are excited about the roll-out, leading to thousands signing up for the waiting lists. 

Cruise has just started its initial testing phase in Raleigh, North Carolina. This phase will focus on adjusting the technology to the city’s roads and driver behavior. A spokesperson from Cruise stated that, “[f]or now, our vehicles will be manually driven by a human driver behind the wheel, but you might start to see them around as we get used to Raleigh’s driving environment.”  

But are there laws governing their use? In 2017, a North Carolina state law was passed that regulates fully autonomous vehicles. Currently, no driver’s license is required to operate one, but there is a minimum age of 12 to ride in one unsupervised; the registered owner of a driverless car is responsible for any violations; and that the vehicles are required to meet federal safety regulations. 

Despite the safety concerns, Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin is excited for Cruise to begin testing the technology. Baldwin states that “[i]t’s always a concern, but so are people driving . . . [w]e have more accidents now than we’ve ever had …[w] e’ve had more pedestrian fatalities, and that’s with people driving cars.” Currently, Cruise does not have an estimated timeframe for when these cars will be ready for passengers. Still, who knows, maybe this time next year, we will be taking Cruise cars to Goodfellows on the way to Bar Review on Thursdays.  

Ethan Clark

Ethan Clark is a second-year law student from Charlotte, North Carolina. He attended North Carolina State University and graduated with a degree in Psychology. At UNC Law, Ethan serves as the Vice President of the Sports and Entertainment Law Association, is a Competing Member on UNC’s Holderness Moot Court Team, and is a Staff Member on the Journal of Law and Technology. In his free time, he enjoys working out at the gym, playing golf, and watching sports.