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Streets of San Francisco test mettle of Cruise robotaxis

Streets of San Francisco test mettle of Cruise robotaxis
Streets of San Francisco test mettle of Cruise robotaxis 03:12

SAN FRANCISCO -- The self-driving robotaxi company Cruise continued to expand its service this year as it prepares to enter new markets outside California.

As the company moves to develop more models of autonomous vehicles, some local riders look forward to the new services while others in the city worry the process may be moving too fast to maintain safety. 

"I saw the cars on the street with the branding and the names and I just had to Google it," said Nicolas Grenié, who lives in San Francisco and works in the tech industry. "You want to have a different experience and you want to try something new before everyone else."

Grenié got on the waitlist and was surprised to find out he was granted access to use the service which offers limited operations in the city at night.

Currently the company says it offers autonomous rides in the northwest third of San Francisco between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Cruise Ride-Hailing App

A KPIX reporter took a ride one weeknight in October in a Chevy Bolt, which pulled up to a selected location with no driver. Similar to other ride-hailing services, you request a car via an app and you can track the vehicle's progress to your location.

Once it arrives, there's a time limit to get inside and into the back seat. Next, audio instructions and screens describe what to do until your ride is complete. For example, passengers are not permitted to stick their hands out the window while on a trip with Cruise. 

"The status quo is far too unacceptable with 40,000 fatalities a year, so Cruise's mission is really about saving people's lives, helping our planet by being an all-electric fleet from the start and allowing for freedom of movement in and around the cities we most care about," said Prashanthi Raman, Cruise vice president of global governmental affairs. "This is an incredibly challenging place to drive and so we've picked the hardest city first for a reason because if we can do it here, we can do this anywhere."

Cruise says they have covered more than four million miles since they started operation and that includes 400,000 miles with public rider programs. The company is navigating policies and regulations that would allow it to operate its current driverless vehicles and other models in different jurisdictions. The California Public Utilities Commission regulates autonomous vehicles offering passenger service in this state. The agency says Cruise is the only company currently authorized to operate driverless passenger services in San Francisco. 

"Governments and regulators and people concerned about those issues will want to go slow and want to make sure they're doing the right thing before they let them loose on the streets," said Mark Gruberg. He's a taxi driver who has worked in the city for almost 40 years and is a member of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance. "I worry that things are moving too fast."

As a taxi driver who started in 1983, Gruberg has seen the industry take on different challenges over the decades, including the arrival of ride-hailing services and, more recently, the pandemic.

Cruise Robotaxi
A Cruise self-driving taxi in San Francisco KPIX

While Cruise and other driverless car services could compete with the taxi market, Gruberg believes they can all be a part of a larger range of options when it comes to transportation but he believes the technology is immature at the moment and the number of miles driven by Cruise is a fraction of what taxis cover regularly in major cities. 

"I think there will always be a role for taxis because there's always going to be people who need assistance," he told KPIX. 

The San Francisco fire department says that, in April, a Cruise vehicle created a delay for one of its fire engines as it responded to an emergency. In a response to KPIX about the incident, SFPD also said it is seeking out industry training related to autonomous vehicles.

The San Francisco police department says it tracks collisions involving autonomous vehicles and those reports are forwarded to SFPD's commercial vehicle unit for investigation. 

"You're able to teach the vehicles something that is new and different, which is far different than a human driver," Raman said. She explained that, at the moment, Cruise programs its driverless fleet to pull over to the side when encountering any issues with another vehicle. "AVs aren't driving distracted, they're not driving drowsy, they're not drunk."

The company is moving forward with a model called Origin, which would not have a steering wheel or driver console. Its petition has been submitted to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. NHTSA told KPIX it is currently reviewing comments in response to the petition. Those comments include concerns from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which brought up the number of vehicles that would be part of the new Origin fleet, the lack of human controls on the vehicle and its larger size. 

"We are fundamentally dedicated to ensuring that our vehicles are safe on the road for our passengers inside them and everyone who is sharing the space around us," Raman said about Cruise's approach for all models. "We know this is new and different."

She also sees Cruise as helping to expand transportation options for the public and says the company does not want to replace any jobs or displace any drivers with its services. The company has tried to emphasize its impact on the environment and its contributions to social causes, with one percent of its fleet assisting with deliveries for nonprofits. 

"Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to improve people's lives and livelihood and mortality," Raman said. "People have options and they have a choice."

The company believes that as more people try their service, they'll convince more people to trust the technology and feel safe in one of their cars. That is the sort of conversion that Grenié says he experienced after his first ride -- among the several he's taken in a Cruise vehicle. 

"You're a little afraid, you're scared about what's going to happen," he said. "You trust the car really and, hopefully, nothing is going to happen and nothing has happened so it's safe."

Cruise says anyone interested in using their service can sign up for their wait list at The company plans to expand its service in Austin, Texas and in Phoenix, Arizona by the end of the year.

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