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Tue, May

“An Unreasonable Risk to Public Safety”

VOICES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - California regulators recently revoked the license of the robo-taxi service owned by General Motors after determining its driverless cars, aka autonomous vehicles or AVs, in San Francisco are a dangerous menace.

Following the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval of full-time commercial robo-taxi use by Cruise and Waymo in San Francisco in early August, a series of incidents including hitting a fire truck and getting stuck in wet concrete escalated concerns about hazards and inconveniences, leading the DMV to demand Cruise remove 50% of its vehicles from the streets during its investigation.

Then, on October 2nd, when a Cruise “Panini” autonomous car hit a pedestrian lying prone on the pavement after having been hit by a human driver, the DMV concluded that the Cruise robo-taxis posed “an unreasonable risk to public safety.”

Especially since the “Panini” robot refused to back up after dragging its critically injured victim 20 feet, who had to be extricated with the “jaws of life.”\

The California suspension is a major blow to General Motors. The multinational conglomerate clearly was blinded by the dollar signs in its eyes when it told shareholders that its Cruise robot car business would generate exponential profits, with $1 billion in revenue by 2025.

That, in contrast with the mere $100 million it made last year on losses of almost $2 billion. And now those losses are sure to mount.

Recently released reports disturbingly indicate that Cruise kept its vehicles on the road despite known problems about recognizing children, who pose increased risks due to their less than predictable behavior. GM also acknowledged that large holes in the road and other common construction zone hazards posed major unresolved risks.

Although Google’s Waymo vehicles in San Francisco have not yet been involved in a major accident, they continue to come to sudden stops, backing up traffic and impeding emergency vehicle response.

Initial approval of both services by the CPUC came over a chorus of protests, including some lodged by police and fire officials who asserted the driverless vehicles had been impeding emergency vehicle access during the testing phase.

Cruise had tested and was planning to unleash its cars on Angelenos where protests have already been percolating but, for now, we are safe due to GM suspending AV operations nationwide.

Currently, no robo-car service offers customers the option to take freeways, but an August release announced Waymo was testing its autonomous taxi on San Francisco area highways pitching people on the joy of seeing Waymos “at all times of day driving with other cars, at speed, making lane changes, etc.”

Yikes!

Waymo is still busy on Santa Monica streets and, this month, intends to expand to Century City, West Hollywood, Koreatown, Mid-City and downtown Los Angeles.

While it must have had tacit support from some City departments and curious Councilmembers, at least initially, to get so far in testing and a spokesperson claims Waymo worked closely with City Hall policymakers, first responders and transportation agencies – this must have been during some behind-closed-door deals, what a surprise.

How many Angelenos want these robot-brained vehicles wending their ways through the City’s already dangerous streets? And the autonomous car concept is not flying well with other leaders – those with skin in the game.

Yvonne Wheeler, President of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor was pretty clear:

“We're saying hell no to driverless vehicles on our streets. Autonomous vehicles, like the ones that Waymo wants to unleash in our communities, have been wreaking havoc wherever they go. From blocking fire trucks on call, to emergencies, to crashes into buses, running over animals, running through construction sites and ruining freshly poured concrete, it's clear this technology is not ready to be introduced into our roads and our city.”

Lindsay Dougherty, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 399, came right out with “Anybody who knows Los Angeles knows that the freeways are not the place to bring these reckless robo-taxis.”

And now there are two motions wending their way through our City government, one urging California to address safety concerns, and the other to drill down on the issues and give the City, not political hacks ensconced in Sacramento, control.

Click the pdf icon for 11/01/2023 at to read the initial ask, and click on “New” in the upper right corner to add your two cents.

City Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez, joined by Nithya Raman, Imelda Padilla, and Heather Hutt, is calling on the City Attorney to join an existing lawsuit to urge officials in the state to address public safety concerns around autonomous vehicles and rein in the expansion of robo-taxis in Los Angeles. It has gone to the Transportation Committee, and the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee for consideration.

Check it out here and add your own comments, again by clicking the “New” button.

Soto-Martinez also put out to the press his concerns that these vehicles could be taken over in a potential cyberattack.

Then re-emphasized that, even if AV technology were to be improved, he would still strongly oppose autonomous vehicle services due to potential elimination of well-paying jobs for Angelenos. He wants Los Angeles to join in the San Francisco lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission demanding a do-over of the hearing that approved the expansion of robo-taxi permits for Cruise and Waymo.

Hyundai’s Motional also plans to jump into this purported boom with plans to hit up the Las Vegas market later this year.

And has anyone addressed the parking impact? Competing with a robot for the last half-hour on an open meter in commercial areas or spots along our residential streets? Has the City agreed to give up parking revenue so Angelenos’ family and friends can compete with rows of Waymos when invited for dinner?

As with any new technology, the biggest challenge for autonomous driving was obtaining approvals. Once Cruise and Waymo could prove the concept in a few major cities – which it has in greater Phoenix, Austin and San Francisco, and testing moving forward in more than a dozen others from Seattle, Washington to Washington D.C. – further expansion was believed to be inevitable, restricted only by vehicle supply.

But how safe are AVs?

Having enjoyed his San Francisco robo-taxi experiences, technology reporter Alex Kantrowitz, another booster, asserts:

“From a safety standpoint, both companies claim that data shows that the cars are better than human drivers, that once you’re in the vehicle, the stats only confirm the cars are cautious, not distracted, not drunk, and they navigate turns and stops with ease. You can text and do work without feeling nauseous. If you don’t wear a seat belt, Cruise cars won’t start and Waymo support will call you. The more time you spend inside the vehicles, the more evident it becomes that regulators trying to stop them will ultimately lose. They’re just that good.”

Hah! So good that bright orange traffic cones can immobilize the autonomous vehicles by forcing them into “shutdown mode” with their hazard lights on, until the cone is removed or a company technician comes to reset the car’s system.

Because they’re starting to seem a lot like cockroaches.

According to Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt:

“Last year, we were operating tens of autonomous vehicles. We’re currently operating hundreds – almost 400 concurrently at peak. Next year, there’ll be thousands. And then it’ll continue, at least 10 times growth every year for the foreseeable future.”

Does that mean that the potential endangerment of humans, especially children, blockages of emergency vehicle response, and obstruction of traffic flow will also continue to increase ten-fold each and every year?

Rush hour traffic can quadruple the time of an Angelenos’ commute and squads of AVs will only aggravate the situation.

Robo-car proponents point out that such time can be put to better use if people aren’t at the wheel. Napping, writing the next great American novel, memorizing lines for a film shoot or studying for a final exam.

Mmm – sounds like what can already be done in a bus or on the Metro. That is, if Los Angeles could get its public transportation system to work for commuters instead of the homeless...

Alternatively, AVs could be repurposed strictly as robots to run errands with no human involvement – buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet, appearing in traffic court for vehicular manslaughter...

Once working-from-home hit mainstream, no matter how much bosses scream, there is no forcing office drones, those workers not tied to assembly line machinery, back into their cubicles. The business world is going to have to accept that employees now have the choice not to participate in the road-rage rat-race on a daily basis.

The whole concept of living and working, transport and businesses will have to be reinvented. And no-one knows yet exactly how that transformation will play out.

Decoupling from physical office spaces has empowered people in search of an improved quality of life. For decades Americans swarmed to cities for jobs; now with real estate costs in the stratosphere, decentralization is the name of the game and Angelenos are exiting in droves.

But whatever promises are made, however much is offered to politicians behind their office doors, no-one should authorize the release of Franken-vehicles onto the streets of L.A. until all concerns are fully understood and addressed.

 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)