San Francisco seeks stop sign on driverless cars

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La August 18, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

San Francisco seeks stop sign on driverless cars

San Francisco isn’t going to take last week’s robotaxi decision by the California Public Utilities Commission lying down. Joined by the city’s transit authority board, fire department and board of supervisors, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed motions on Wednesday to halt the unrestricted expansion of autonomous vehicles for commercial use.

  • Chiu, in a statement: “We have seen that this technology is not yet ready, and poor AV performance has interfered with the life-saving operations of first responders. San Francisco will suffer serious harms from this unfettered expansion, which outweigh whatever impacts AV companies may experience from a minimal pause in commercial deployment.”

Last Friday, the commission voted to permit Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise to expand their driverless car operations by allowing them to charge passengers for driverless rides without a human safety driver present, at all hours.

The two requests (one for Waymo and the other for Cruise) seek to “preserve the status quo” while the city seeks a rehearing, said Chiu. He argues that the commission “abused its discretion” in two ways:

  • It voted to expand services without adding measures to address known issues with performance and public safety caused by the cars.
  • It failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act because it should know that by allowing several thousands robotaxis in San Francisco without restriction, this “may result in significant environmental impacts.”

Thursday, a commission spokesperson told Calmatters that it is “evaluating” the motions, which “will be taken up by the full panel as soon as practicable.”

The motions, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, cite as evidence several occurrences in which robotaxis obstructed emergency vehicles — stalling at intersections, driving into oncoming lanes, blocking water supplies from firetrucks and rolling over firehouses.

Thursday night, two Cruise vehicles were involved in separate collisions and afterwards, the company agreed to a request from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to cut its fleet on the streets in half, the Chronicle reports. And last weekend during San Francisco’s popular Outside Lands music festival, Cruise cars caused a major backup after stopping in the middle of a large street, the Chronicle reported. The company cited “bandwidth constraints” caused by the large number of festival attendees overloading wireless networks.

The city is expected to file an application for rehearing “in the coming weeks.”

The standoff between the utilities commission and San Francisco is only one front in the wider debate over the future of autonomous driving. The Legislature is currently considering a bill that would essentially ban driverless commercial trucks unless there is a human operator on board. 

Union groups supporting the measure argue that it will protect jobs. And on Wednesday, Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, highlighted its relevance to CPUC’s vote.

  • GonzalezFletcher, in a tweet: “California has a responsibility to get tech right, not just let corporations throw out any rules & stomp all over workers, public safety & residents (like is happening w/robotaxis in SF.) It’s time to take our state back from the tech elites at the cocktail party. People matter.”

Focus on inequality: Each Friday, the California Divide team delivers a newsletter that focuses on the politics and policy of inequality. Read the latest installment here and subscribe here.

CalMatters events: The next event is scheduled for Sept. 19, on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push for rehabilitation over incarceration. Register here. Here’s our coverage of the prior panel discussions in Sacramento, in May on homeownership, in June on police shootings and this week on electric vehicles and inequality. If you missed the latest, you can watch it here.


1 The fight over hydrogen-fueled cars

An Iwatani hydrogen fuel station in West Sacramento on July 25, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A hydrogen fuel station in West Sacramento on July 25, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Speaking of new tech and cars: Like the Betamax vs. VHS or Laserdisc vs. DVD battles of yore, there’s a battle brewing between battery- or hydrogen-powered cars. And as CalMatters’ climate reporter Alejandro Lazo explains, on which zero-emissions vehicle will be widely adopted, there may already be a clear winner

Under a state mandate, California must phase out fossil fuels and gasoline-powered cars by 2035. About 25% of new cars sold in the state this year are powered by batteries and Californians own about 760,000 battery-powered vehicles. And there’s the need for more EV charging stations and other programs, particularly to broaden access for less affluent Californians. But there are only about 12,000 hydrogen-powered cars and demand dropped last year by 20%.

So why is so much state money going into hydrogen vehicles? And why is the industry pushing for even more? 

Since 2013, the state’s Clean Transportation Program — which uses California driver fees to invest in alternative fuels and clean vehicle technology — has earmarked 20% of funds for hydrogen (and the state so far has spent $202 million for hydrogen fueling stations). A lobbying group for hydrogen supporters and suppliers — including Chevron, Shell and Toyota — is seeking a 30% share, totaling $300 million over the next decade.

This exceeds what Democratic Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes from San Bernardino and Sen. Lena Gonzalez from Long Beach seek for the next few years. Their Assembly Bill 241 would require only 10% of the program’s funds to go toward hydrogen fueling stations until 2030 (about $10 million a year).

As electric cars become more popular, oil and gas companies regard hydrogen as a way to stay in the industry (hydrogen cars emit no emissions, but they use fossil fuel-derived hydrogen gas to run their motors). Lobbying groups, which include Chevron and Shell, are advocating for more money, but environmentalists are pushing back, even as Gov. Newsom last week announced a new push to expand the hydrogen market.

California legislators are divided about how valuable hydrogen is, but if they can’t reach an agreement on the spending plan, the program will expire next year. For Gonzalez, she doesn’t want to allocate more than $10 million a year given the technology’s low adoption rate.

  • Gonzalez: “It’s a waste of money. They say they’re hydrogen businesses, but they’re really fossil-fuel-industry businesses.”

2 Does party noise count as pollution?

Students move into the University of California, Berkeley dorms in Berkeley on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters
Students move into the University of California, Berkeley dorms in Berkeley on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

Neighborhood groups are eager not to get the party started: The argument that people cause enough noise pollution to violate environmental laws has once again been invoked to block new housing development.

As CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher and higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explain, a private developer’s project in Los Angeles was recently blocked by a California appeals court because the noise from social gatherings on its rooftop deck would violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

In its ruling, the court cited a similar and equally contentious case involving a proposed student housing project at UC Berkeley. In February, a state appeals court blocked it, partly because of the potential “noise impacts from loud student parties.”

The UC Berkeley ruling caused public outcry from Republican and Democratic legislators alike, who said that CEQA was being used by environmentalists and neighborhood groups to stymie housing when California is in dire need of more affordable housing. Even the governor chimed in — his administration filed a legal brief in April opposing the court’s ruling. 

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks has authored a bill that would specify that human noise pollution would not have “a significant effect on the environment.” In an interview with CalMatters, Wicks called the Los Angeles ruling “infuriating.”

  • Wicks, an Oakland Democrat: “We have so many hurdles to building housing in California. We don’t need yet another one in the form of ‘human noises.’”

The state’s public universities and community colleges are not immune to California’s housing crunch, either. Though Newsom agreed last year to spend $1.4 billion to build or expand dorms in public campuses, hundreds of thousands of students every year still need affordable housing, and experience homelessness, resort to couch-surfing or struggle to pay rent. (Note that the Los Angeles housing project was unaffiliated with any school, but its proximity to the University of Southern California presumably meant many of its tenants would be students.)

3 Feds give $21 million for salmon recovery

Juvenile chinook salmon collected for lab testing on the Klamath River near Weitchpec on July 20, 2023
Juvenile chinook salmon collected for lab testing on the Klamath River near Weitchpec on July 20, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

California canceled this year’s salmon season, devastating the fisheries on the coast and all the people who depend on it.

Thursday, they got a sliver of good news: The Biden administration announced that it’s sending more than $21 million to the state to help with the recovery (part of $106 million to West Coast states):

The aid will be more than welcome after the state and a council of West Coast fishery managers killed the salmon season, which usually runs from May to October and produced 300,000 salmon last year. The estimated economic loss: $460 million, plus hundreds of jobs in the commercial and recreational fishing fleet, from the Central Coast to the Oregon border. Gov. Newsom had asked for federal disaster relief right after the April official decision.

It’s only the third time California’s salmon season has been entirely canceled, and for similar reasons; in 2008 and 2009, the number of spawning fish returning to the Sacramento River also crashed. The cause: A multitude of factors, including water use by cities and farms, worsened by the drought, leading to low flows and high water temperatures, which can kill salmon eggs and young fish. 


CalMatters Commentary

California leaders must ensure that offshore wind projects bring both economic and environmental success, writes Chris Hannan, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

CalMatters commentary has a new California Voices page with previous op-eds and columns, plus picks by editor Yousef Baig. Give it a look.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Newsom pushes gun amendment despite legal experts’ worries // San Francisco Chronicle

Ad industry tries to quash proposed data broker regulations // Politico

SoCalGas charged Californians millions to fight climate solutions // The Sacramento Bee 

SoCalGas spends millions to fight bans on restaurant gas use // The Sacramento Bee

How Rep. Adam Schiff celebrated Trump’s fourth indictment // Los Angeles Times

Central Valley farmers are having a climate reckoning // Politico

Orange Unified may be latest to adopt transgender-child policy // Los Angeles Times

Oakland school board has no candidates after city clerk’s error // East Bay Times

Culprit in deadly dinner party may be infamous mushroom // San Francisco Chronicle

Newsom triples CHP enforcement in LA to combat retail thefts // KTLA

LA police campaigned against Mayor Bass. Now she wants to give them a raise // Politico

Ex-Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu to plead guilty to federal charges // Los Angeles Times

East Contra Costa cops rounded up in early morning FBI raid // The Mercury News

State regulators take up UC San Diego labor complaint // The Sacramento Bee

Environmental groups sue SoCal air regulator over ozone pollution // Politico

See you next week


Tips, insight or feedback? Email lynn@calmatters.org.

Subscribe to CalMatters newsletters here.

Follow CalMatters on Facebook and Twitter.

CalMatters is now available in Spanish on Twitter, Facebook and RSS.