After a Big Lobbying Push, Robotaxi Companies Are Wreaking Havoc on San Francisco’s Streets

Driverless taxi companies Waymo and Cruise have long track records of crashes, near misses, and interfering with emergency personnel. But after spending nearly $2 million on lobbying in California, the robotaxis have been given free rein in San Francisco.

A Waymo autonomous vehicle drives along Masonic Avenue on April 11, 2022, in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

In the lead-up to California regulators voting earlier this month to allow driverless taxis to operate with near impunity in San Francisco, the companies behind the autonomous vehicles, Cruise and Waymo, spent nearly $2 million on lobbying in the state, including wining and dining nearly three dozen state officials.

What’s more, one of the three “yes” votes on the matter came from Cruise’s former top lawyer, who was appointed to the four-member commission by California governor Gavin Newsom in 2021.

The controversial and precedent-setting approval came despite the fact that the two driverless taxi companies have long track records of crashes, near misses, and emergency personnel interferences, according to records uncovered by the Lever.

These revelations illustrate the influence peddling, cozy relationships, and inside connections behind another win for Big Tech in California — a victory that came despite extensive calls from local officials, activists, residents, and union leaders to hit the brakes on unleashing the new and relatively untested technology on the hilly streets of one of the busiest and most congested cities in the country.

Sure enough, within days of the vote, autonomous vehicles caused traffic jams outside a concert, one vehicle was involved in a crash, and yet another failed to yield to a firetruck with its lights and sirens on and was struck during the emergency call.

On August 10, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, transit, and water companies, ignored concerns from the San Francisco Fire Department and other stakeholders and voted three to one to allow Cruise and Waymo to operate and collect fares continuously and with complete autonomy in San Francisco.

The approval allows Cruise vehicles to travel without a driver at a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour, while Waymo is allowed a top speed of sixty-five miles per hour, meaning its vehicles can operate on highways.

Previously, Waymo was allowed to travel citywide at speeds up to sixty-five miles per hour with a driver present, but wasn’t allowed to accept fares while it operated in a probationary period; Cruise was allowed to collect fares from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Both companies were also previously required to have human drivers onboard during certain conditions, such as driving on highways and during inclement weather.

“It’s pretty clear that the state is overruling both the city government and the residents of the city here,” an organizer with Safe Street Rebel, an activist group protesting for car-free spaces, told us. “And so that’s not necessarily a great sign for how this is going to move forward.”

Safe Street Rebel, a decentralized group that prefers to keep its members anonymous due to potential legal or punitive actions, has been involved in a number of protest incidents in which activists place traffic cones on the hoods of the driverless cars, disrupting the cars’ sensors and forcing the vehicle to stop, illustrating how easy it is for the vehicles to become incapacitated and cause congestion. The group also says they have documented nearly 260 incidents involving autonomous “failures, crashes and stalls.”

“I Plan to Use My Experience”

Waymo, a $30-billion company owned by Google, has been pushing for autonomous vehicle regulations for years, having filed lobbying disclosures on the matter since 2016. The robotaxi company started in 2009 and first took passengers on driverless rides in August 2021. The company now has 250 autonomous vehicles in operation in San Francisco alone.

Waymo has spent nearly $1 million in the past two years on California lobbying efforts, which includes treating thirty-six state officials to food and beverage spreads.

Google, Waymo’s parent company, treated seventeen California Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) representatives to a meal on two separate occasions in August and September of 2022. (Lobbying disclosures don’t include the specifics of such meals.)

More wining and dining occurred in October 2022, when Waymo representatives dined with top officials from the California DMV and California Highway Patrol officers.

In March this year, Waymo treated fifteen legislative directors, aides, field representatives, schedulers, and other staff for various state lawmakers to food and beverages.

Cruise, a near-$30-billion company primarily owned by General Motors, got its start in 2013 and first began offering public rides on San Francisco’s roads in January 2022.

Cruise has spent roughly $750,000 in the past two years lobbying California lawmakers, the governor’s office, and officials with the DMV and Public Utilities Commission on autonomous vehicle regulations and other issues.

Cruise did not report treating state officials to any meals, but they still enjoy cozy connections: in 2021, Newsom appointed John Reynolds, Cruise’s former managing counsel, to the Public Utilities Commission.

Ahead of the August 10 vote on expanding robotaxi services, Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, called out Reynolds’s connection to Cruise and the Public Utilities Commission’s “ethically challenged history.”

“You would think that they would want to be held to the highest standard, and this commissioner should recuse himself,” Peskin said during a July rally against the autonomous vehicles’ approval.

During the hearing, Reynolds acknowledged he had previously worked for Cruise, but noted that he had already recused himself from the commission’s votes on autonomous vehicle matters for one year.

“And now, well after such passage of time, I plan to use my experience as a consumer advocate and my familiarity with this emerging technology to the benefit of the Californians that we serve,” Reynolds said during the vote hearing.

The Public Utilities Commission backed Reynolds’s decision.

“Commissioner Reynolds is permitted to vote on the matter and currently intends to do so,” a Public Utilities Commission spokesperson told the San Francisco Standard in July.

As part of the five-hour hearing, public utilities commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, a longtime public official, said the commission lacks “sufficient information to evaluate . . . autonomous vehicles’ impact on the ability of our first responders to carry out their life-saving duties.”

“I believe it is premature to vote to approve these resolutions today,” Shiroma said:

There is no reason to rush a vote when there are still three additional months for Cruise and Waymo to . . . explain to the commission how the existing driverless, autonomous vehicle technology can be improved to prevent the unexpected and unexplained vehicle stops.

Reynolds, the former Cruise lawyer, countered that the DMV handles safety testing and that the commission does not have the authority to regulate beyond passenger safety.

“What is really being debated broadly here, is the interactions of [autonomous vehicles] on the roadway, which falls under the jurisdiction of our sister agency the [DMV],” he said. “Some parties are asking us to override the judgment of the DMV even though it is the agency tasked with this oversight.”

A few days earlier, San Francisco officials had warned state regulators during a preliminary hearing on the matter about dozens of incidents in which Cruise and Waymo vehicles interfered with emergency responses, damaged equipment, and drove through active emergency scenes.

On June 9, one Cruise vehicle even blocked emergency personnel from accessing the scene of a mass shooting.

Shiroma ended up providing the lone dissenting vote on approving the expanded approvals. The Public Utilities Commission’s press release announcing the decision includes a quote from Reynolds stating that “I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway.”

The announcement did not mention Reynolds’s previous job at Cruise.

When asked about if it was appropriate for Reynolds to be voting on the Cruise application and if he sought advice from legal counsel on the matter, a Public Utilities Commission spokesperson provided  a one-sentence response: “Commissioner Reynolds was permitted to vote on the items.”

“People in the Industry Don’t Understand How Public Safety Operates”

Cruise and Waymo, due to state and federal regulations, are required to report crash data to regulators. Between July 2021 and July 2023, Cruise reported seventy-eight crash incidents nationwide to the US Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Waymo reported 150 crashes nationwide and General Motors, Cruise’s parent company, reported sixty-five across the country.

During one March 2022 incident reported to federal regulators, a Cruise vehicle was involved in a collision that led a cyclist to be taken away in an ambulance.

But this data does not include near misses, traffic congestion, or many other issues plaguing local emergency personnel in San Francisco.

San Francisco emergency personnel have also documented their own incidents.

The San Francisco Fire Department has reported at least fifty-five incidents in which Cruise and Waymo vehicles have interfered with emergency responses over the past sixteen months. In the reports, the robotaxis have disrupted or blocked emergency scenes, blocked fire trucks from leaving the station, and failed to recognize lights and sirens from emergency vehicles.

In one especially alarming situation, a Cruise vehicle blasted through caution tape and signs indicating a road closure and became entangled in downed power lines.

“This incident raises many concerns about the safety of these Cruise driverless vehicles,” the San Francisco Fire Department noted in a report about the incident:

The need for these vehicles to recognize a road closed by caution tape and caution sandwich boards is imperative. If this wire had still been “hot” this would have been much more hazardous. It is also of note that the vehicle did not recognize when it hit the heavy wire, or that it was being dragged on its roof top for half a block.

Cruise has routinely pointed to its record of “more than 3 million driverless miles in [San Francisco] without a single fatality or life-threatening injury.”

Cruise and Waymo did not respond to requests for comment regarding their safety data and extensive lobbying history.

But the incidents after the August 10 vote prompted enough public pressure that a week later, regulators cut Cruise’s operating vehicles in half, to just fifty during the day and 150 overnight, when vehicle and pedestrian traffic is lighter.

San Francisco isn’t the only city dealing with headaches from driverless taxis.

Cruise and Waymo operate in a handful of cities across the country including Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona.

The Austin Fire Department has also struggled with robotaxis. Cruise began operating there in September 2022, and Waymo entered the market in April this year.

In Austin, autonomous vehicles have stopped in the middle of the road and failed to recognize emergency personnel, contributing to traffic delays and other safety issues, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis told the Lever.

“The problem, I think, is the flexibility of the algorithms that are currently in the vehicles right now,” Davis said. “The vehicles are learning about their environment, but they’re not to the level of human flexibility when it comes to dealing with the unexpected.”

Davis recalled an incident in which an autonomous vehicle failed to recognize a police officer giving hand signals at a downed traffic light. He said the officer had to stand within two feet of the vehicle to get it to stop. The vehicle eventually turned, after it stopped and completely blocked traffic for about five minutes.

“It is interesting technology, to say the least,” Davis said: “I think all companies involved in autonomous vehicles need to do themselves and the community a service to ensure that public safety is involved. I think a lot of times some people in the industry don’t understand how public safety operates.”