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Waymo’s robotaxi expansion plan for Peninsula delayed by regulator

Waymo’s robotaxi expansion plan for Peninsula delayed by regulator

A plan by robotaxi company Waymo to expand its driverless service down the Peninsula has hit a four-month regulatory delay.

The Mountain View-based Google spinoff ran into controversy in San Francisco, where robotaxis have snarled traffic, blocked emergency vehicles and been involved in accidents. Waymo rival Cruise has been blamed for the majority of the mayhem.

In January, Waymo, now a subsidiary of Google parent firm Alphabet, applied to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates robotaxis along with the DMV, to begin taking paid fares down the Peninsula to the Sunnyvale city line

The plan drew support from a variety of business organizations, including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Mountain View and Palo Alto chambers of commerce, and some advocacy non-profits, including those for disabled people and bicyclists. Opponents included San Mateo County, which in a letter to the commission cited “public safety incidents involving Waymo and Cruise,” and demanded a more substantial regulatory review of the expansion. South San Francisco made a similar demand.

The commission on Friday issued a notice that Waymo’s Peninsula application — and its proposal to take paid fares in Los Angeles — would be suspended for 120 days to allow “further staff review.”

San Mateo Supervisor David Canepa said the delay would “provide the opportunity to fully engage the autonomous vehicle maker on our very real public safety concerns that have caused all kinds of dangerous situations for firefighters and police in neighboring San Francisco.”

Waymo said it was not surprised at the suspension, as it is standard practice at the utilities commission to suspend applications that are not decided within 30 days. The company noted that its bid to offer paid robotaxi service in San Francisco had also been suspended before it was later approved.

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The company said in its expansion proposal that the DMV has approved its robotaxis for use day and night on freeways and highways with speed limits up to 65 miles per hour, along with city streets, rural roads, other roadways and parking lots. The vehicles — currently electric Jaguar I-PACE SUVs — would be allowed to operate in rain or fog, but not snow, Waymo said.

Disputes over robotaxi services in San Francisco, where General Motors’ Cruise was shut down by the DMV in October over what the agency described as an “unreasonable risk to the public,” highlighted local governments’ inability to regulate the vehicles, which fall under the purview of state authorities. Local police have no authority to issue citations in cases of robotaxis breaking traffic laws. Last month, California state Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 915, which would give permitting power for robotaxi operations to local governments, and allow them to enact new local ordinances regulating them.

Cruise’s San Francisco prohibition came after one of its cars hit an injured pedestrian and dragged her as the vehicle pulled over to stop. The city’s Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin in January said San Francisco data indicates that of about 80 incidents of robotaxis interfering with first responders, Cruise was responsible for two-thirds and Waymo for one-third.

Earlier this month, a Waymo car hit a cyclist in San Francisco. The company said its car had waited its turn at a four-way stop, then after proceeding, collided with the bike rider, who had been closely following a truck. The cyclist sustained minor injuries, and the DMV is investigating the incident, Reuters reported.

Waymo said Wednesday it had completed a dozen training sessions for the North San Mateo County Fire Authority, four for the Menlo Park Police Department, two for the South San Francisco Fire Department, and one each for the San Bruno and Colma police departments. Training sessions have been scheduled  with South San Mateo County Fire, the South San Francisco Fire Department, and South San Francisco, San Mateo and East Palo Alto police, Waymo said.