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City Report Weighs Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

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By Jorge Casuso

March 1, 2023 -- As the first entirely driverless car in LA County prepares to hit Santa Monica streets this month, the City's top transit official released a report on the local status of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The report was sent to the City Council on Monday, the day Waymo -- owned by Google's parent company Alphabet Inc. -- announced it would begin running “fully autonomous” cars in Santa Monica in the next few weeks.

“We’re starting with a dense urban area and are going to expand and scale after we do this initial testing,” Mauricio Peña, Waymo’s chief safety officer, told Forbes on Monday.

“We're not providing a time line for Los Angeles right now, but are definitely doing all the steps we need to be ready to launch our commercial service.”

The City report provides an update on the companies jockeying for Santa Monica's lucrative market -- which also include Motional, Cruise and May Mobility.

It also looks at the impacts of AVs -- which have taken a decade and multiple billions of dollars to develop -- on the city's transportation future.

"Today’s AVs have the potential to help our city meet several key mobility objectives, including cutting carbon emissions as most AV companies operate zeroemission battery-electric vehicles," said the report from Edward F. King, Santa Monica's transportation director.

AVs also will have a positive impact by "increasing road safety, reducing crashes, providing first-last mile connectivity to public transit, and improving access to sustainable low-cost transportation for low-income residents and visitors."

But the new technology also poses "new challenges for the City’s overall mobility strategies," King said.

These include "community acceptance, equity issues, curb management, electrical infrastructure support for battery-electric AVs, potential privacy issues as vendors map our streets, and managing the tremendous amount of data that vendors generate through AV operation."

The report, however, does not mention the mixed track record of entirely driverless AVs in San Francisco, where government officials recently complained some vehicles unexpectedly stopped, causing taffic jams, interfering with active firefighting and causing human drivers to make unsafe moves.

According to King's report, more than 40 vendors currently hold California DMV permits "that allow the testing of AVs with drivers on board.

"Of these, seven companies are permitted to test without drivers, and three, including Cruise and Waymo, have deployment permits in California."

Waymo recently released data showing its fully autonomous vehicles are safe. After traveling more than 1 million miles, Waymo’s vehicles were involved in two crashes that were reported to the police and involved at least one vehicle being towed away.

Waymo’s vehicles have also been involved in 18 “minor contact events” that did not meet the criteria of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Crash Investigation Sampling System (CISS).

“This data suggests our fully autonomous driving system, the Waymo Driver, is reducing the likelihood of serious crashes, helping us make progress towards our mission for safer, more accessible mobility for all,” Peña said in a statement.

But AVs have also impacted the behavior of human drivers and caused traffic jams when they stalled on San Francisco streets, where both Waymo and Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, have deployed fully driverless vehicles.

In January, a self-driving car "stopped in the middle of a busy street during the morning rush hour in San Francisco, jamming traffic for nearly two miles," according to a report in the New York Times.

"The car, which was operated by Waymo, did not leave the intersection until company technicians arrived about 10 minutes later and manually drove it away," the Times reported.

On Saturday, the County's Transportation Authority sent a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission asking State officials to tread carefully before quickly expanding AV fleets (copy of letter).

The letter said "further restraint and demonstrated improved performance, rather than rapid expansion of geographic area and service hours. . . offer the best path toward public confidence in driving automation and industry success."

County officials cited 92 unique incidents reported to the City of San Francisco between May 29, and December 31, 2022, mostly involving "unexpected and unplanned" stops "obstructing travel lanes" that "create hazards."

"They can cause other vehicles to make dangerous abrupt lane changes, brake or accelerate rapidly, or veer into bike lanes or crosswalks. They can cause rear end collisions," the letter said.

Most involved Cruise vehicles, although that "may reflect a lower volume of Waymo driverless vehicle miles traveled (VMT)," the letter said.

In December, the NHTSA officials said the transportation agency has opened a formal probe into the autonomous driving system used by Cruise, according to NBC News.

The Chevrolet Bolt self-driving EVs engaged in “inappropriately hard braking” or becoming “immobilized while operating,” according to a filing.

The investigation will determine “the scope and severity of the potential problem and fully assess the potential safety-related issues posed by these two types of incidents.”

In response to the media report, Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for Cruise, said that there is “always a balance between healthy regulatory scrutiny and the innovation we desperately need to save lives.”

Editor's note: This report was updated at 11:20 a.m. Thursday to include information on an investigation launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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