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Driverless cars can now operate like taxis in San Francisco, raising safety concerns

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People in San Francisco can see driverless cars cruising their streets. And this week, California decided to let these self-driving cars also operate like taxis. NPR's tech correspondent Dara Kerr joins us. Dara, thanks so much for being with us.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

SIMON: And what was behind this decision to expand the use of driverless cars?

KERR: Yeah. These self-driving cars have been causing quite a controversy in San Francisco, and it really came to the fore this week during two separate lengthy meetings with the California Public Utilities Commission, which is a state regulator. In a 3-to-1 vote, the commission decided to let self-driving cars expand their programs and allow them to basically operate like taxis. So now these cars can pick up passengers and charge a fare at all hours of the day. Up until now, the companies had pretty limited passenger pickup programs. And just to be clear, these cars have no human inside until a rider gets in. They're operating completely autonomously. And the two companies that run these vehicles are Cruise, which is owned by GM, and Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet.

SIMON: And what's been the controversy?

KERR: Yeah. So before the first meeting this week, there was a protest out front of the commission's office. People were chanting stop the robo-taxis. And at the same time, Waymo brought in dozens of its employees, and they were wearing bright yellow shirts that said Safer Roads For All. And hundreds of people signed up to give public comment at these meetings. The companies and people in support of the self-driving cars said they're safer than human-driven ones. You don't have drunk drivers or people texting or falling asleep. And people who are LGBTQ and women say they'd face less harassment in a car without a human. However, a lot more people spoke out against the driverless cars. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates said they've had near misses. Others said they don't want to be guinea pigs for this technology. Some said the fact that the cars are covered in cameras is unnerving. Here's Lauren Renaud.

LAUREN RENAUD: Just everyday by walking around being videotaped by these and having them track my movements, I am being part of their business.

SIMON: Dara, you've reported about police and fire, other first responders having problems with driverless cars, right?

RENAUD: Yeah. So the San Francisco police and fire departments have been really vocal on this issue. They've been tracking incidents where driverless cars have gotten in the way of first responders. At the first commission meeting this week, the fire department said that over the last six months, it tracked 55 incidents where cars have botched emergency operations. The San Francisco fire chief, Janine Nicholson, testified at the meeting, and she said her firefighters can't be dealing with these self-driving cars when they have to be putting up ladders and putting out fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANINE NICHOLSON: Again, I will reiterate, it is not our job to babysit their vehicles.

KERR: Both the police and fire departments have faced a lot of problems. The cars have run through yellow emergency tape. They've blocked firehouse driveways, and they've run over fire hoses while firefighters were trying to put out a blaze. They've also blocked one-way streets and refused to move. And there's no driver inside the car to communicate with when that happens. So fire trucks have had to back up and take another road.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLSON: Every second can make the difference. A fire can double in size in one minute. If we are blocked by an autonomous vehicle, that could lead to more harm to the people in that building, to the housing overall and to my first responders.

KERR: The companies haven't directly answered why this is happening with emergency vehicles. And in a recent earnings call with the CEO of GM's Cruise, he said he thought San Francisco could handle several thousand more driverless cars on the city's streets.

SIMON: NPR's Dara Kerr. Thanks so much for being with us.

KERR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY BAXTER'S "WE’RE FROM NOWHERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.