Driverless cars to fill the streets of San Francisco

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La August 11, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

Driverless cars to fill the streets of San Francisco

Weighing technology and safety in a closely-watched decision, the California Public Utilities Commission agreed Thursday to allow more Waymo and Cruise self-driving cars to roam San Francisco’s streets. 

After six-and-a-half hours of public comment, the commission voted 3-1 to permit the two companies to expand their driverless car operations, enabling them to charge passengers for driverless rides without a human safety driver present, at all hours.

  • Alice Reynolds, commission president, who voted in favor: “We must base our decision on data and evidence, and on the proper scope of our authority…. This is part of an ongoing process of oversight and testing of a new technology.”

Though Waymo and Cruise cars have been cruising the city’s streets for years, each company currently runs no more than 300 robotaxis at a time and charges fares only at certain times of day and under other circumstances. With Thursday’s vote to expand services, the companies can increasingly compete with other ride-hailing services. The commission is expected to get an update in November on the companies’ expansions. Last month, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt suggested the company could ramp up its operations to compete against the 10,000 gig drivers in San Francisco.

The tech-centric city and nearby Silicon Valley are often used as laboratories for companies to test cutting edge services that eventually go national (think Uber and DoorDash). The expansion of autonomous vehicle fleets by Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and General Motors’ Cruise would reverberate beyond the Bay Area, including the future of delivery and truck drivers statewide.

The arguments for and against robotaxis centered around three core issues:

Public safety: In 2021, an average of nearly 12 people died every day in California from vehicle collisions. In defense of self-driving cars, a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an orthopedic surgeon and bicycling enthusiasts argued that roads will be safer as human error-led accidents will decrease. Recalling incidents of harassment and discrimination, women and LGBTQ+ community members also pointed out the personal safety benefits of driverless cars.

But San Francisco’s fire and police departments, as well as the city’s public transit agency, have documented numerous instances of autonomous vehicles blocking traffic lanes, rolling over fire hoses and stalling emergency vehicles — even during a recent mass shooting. Several residents at the hearing told anecdotes of near (and not-so-near) misses and pets being run over by robotaxis. Genevieve Shiroma, the lone dissenter on the commission, wanted to delay a decision for more study on safety.

Disability and accessibility: Members of the disabled community have been divided. At Thursday’s hearing, people with autism, vision impairments and service animals said that the technology grants them more freedom. 

  • Lana Nieves, Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco executive director: “Autonomous vehicle technology represents a future with greater independence, the ability to go where we want to go, when we want to go, and to do so on our own without having to get into a car with a complete stranger.”

But one woman with mobility issues recalled how a driver helped her get in and out of her wheelchair at the airport, and asked how a robotaxi could do the same. Another raised concerns about the lack of accessibility for elderly passengers not familiar with the technology.

Economy and inequality: At times, the hearing put the very soul of San Francisco on trial. Asking commissioners to reject fear and embrace innovation, SEIU Local 87 union members, software engineers, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and others argued that driverless cars would create more jobs and revitalize the struggling city.

But other union members, cab drivers and long-time residents asserted that allowing yet more multi-billion dollar companies to unleash their technology unchecked would irreparably change the city’s character, take away jobs, increase economic disparities and make the city even more unaffordable.

  • Michael Martinez, a speaker: “The city is going to be pimped out by yet another couple of large tech companies so that all their employees here today… might get to cash out their stock options…. And now you are about to make a decision as to whether or not you’re going to let them run ramshod?… You guys aren’t stupid. Don’t be stupid.”

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 is hosting more events: The next one is Tuesday, on whether the electric vehicle transformation can help bridge California’s economic divide. Sign up here to attend at our Sacramento office, or online. Next on the schedule: Sept. 19, on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push for rehabilitation over incarceration. Register here.


1 CA hunger crisis update

Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano volunteer and staff load groceries into cars in Vallejo on June 7, 2023.
Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano volunteer and staff load groceries into cars in Vallejo on June 7, 2023. Photo by Shelby Knowles for CalMatters

From CalMatters’ politics/California Divide intern Rya Jetha:

The lines at California’s food banks keep getting longer. In March, when CalFresh benefits plummeted for 5.3 million Californians, the statewide food banks association warned of a “catastrophic hunger crisis.”

That crisis is now in full force, and high inflation, which has driven food prices up 4.5% in the last year, is not helping. 

Most food banks are reporting that they’re serving as many as 50% more people than at the beginning of the year, according to the statewide association. 

The Central California Food Bank, which serves Fresno, Madera, King and Kern counties — the most agriculturally productive in the state — said it is serving more than 300,000 people per month compared to around 270,000 before the pandemic. The food bank’s grocery pick-up program is booked out two to three months in advance, when people are meant to have access to it every two to three weeks. 

  • Kym Dildine, co-chief operating officer of the food bank, to CalMatters on Thursday: “In a community that grows the food for most of the nation, it’s heartbreaking that so many in our community just don’t have access to that thing.”

Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, which used to serve around 150,000 people per month before the pandemic, has been serving more than 270,000 people each month since March. 

Food banks in the Bay Area also continue to face high demand. The Berkeley Food Pantry is serving more than 3,000 people every month compared to around 1,500 pre-pandemic. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, faced with budget cuts, has had to freeze enrollment in its programs even though need is going up. 

“We know our community is still struggling,” said Meg Davidson, the food bank’s policy and advocacy director. “Every week there are more and more people coming to us for the first time and asking to be put on the waitlist for our programs.”

The Legislature considered a number of anti-hunger bills this session, including two that would have provided CalFresh benefits to all Californians regardless of their immigration status. Both measures have been made into two-year bills, meaning they will now be considered in 2024.

Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Bakersfield and one of the bill authors, told CalMatters that the effort to secure food for all is not over. 

  • Hurtado: “We share the Food 4 All coalition’s concerns about those left out of the CFAP expansion, particularly the 46 percent of undocumented people under the age of 55 that were sadly not included in this year’s final budget, and we are continuing to work on this issue.””

This setback follows a limited win for advocates in securing CalFresh benefits for undocumented immigrants who are 55 and older beginning in 2025 instead of 2027. They’re now calling for this policy to be expanded to all of California’s 2.3 million undocumented, many of whom work on farms, to reduce hunger in the state.

Food insecurity and hunger: CalMatters has a detailed new explainer that explores a key conundrum for California: Why does a state that produces nearly half the country’s fruits and vegetables — and that spends so much on food aid — have so many residents still not getting all the food they need?

2 An apology, eight decades later

Japanese-American evacuees move into a war relocation authority center in Manzanar on June 19, 1942
Japanese American internees move into a war relocation authority center in Manzanar on June 19, 1942. Photo via AP Photo

California officialdom is focusing on possible reparations for the sins of slavery. But there are other instances of injustice and racism in the state’s history.

Attorney General Rob Bonta reminded us of that Thursday by issuing a formal apology for the office’s role in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

  • Bonta, in a statement: “The forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese American citizens remains among the darkest periods of our history, and the suffering it caused Japanese American families across California is incalculable. While we can never erase the horrors of the past we must take steps to atone for past wrongs by answering the call for accountability, truth and reconciliation, racial healing and transformation.”

History lesson: After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the declaration of war, some 120,000 Japanese Americans, living mostly in California and elsewhere on the West Coast, were incarcerated in camps in California (the first at Manzanar) and other states. Many families were forced to give up their homes and businesses, and weren’t compensated after the war ended.

The apology lists several actions the attorney general’s office took in support of the internment — testifying in support of then-President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, creating a unit in 1943 to enforce a 1913 state law to dispossess farmland and filing a brief in 1944 with the U.S. Supreme Court to support the imprisonment of activist Fred Korematsu.

It wasn’t until 1988 — exactly 35 years ago Thursday — when then-President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law that offered a formal apology, plus $20,000 in compensation for each survivor. And it wasn’t until 2020 when California lawmakers approved an apology, in emotional sessions with elderly survivors.

More on reparations: CalMatters has a detailed explainer on the reparations debate and has also created an interactive tool to estimate how much someone might be owed in reparations for slavery and racism. Look it up here, watch a TikTok about it and see it on Instagram.

3 Turf war in higher ed

Los Angeles Mission College in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2023.
Los Angeles Mission College in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Since the 1960s, California community colleges could only offer vocational training and associate degrees to students, who can then transfer to either the University of California or the California State University using those credentials.

But two years ago, a new law allowed the Community College Chancellor’s Office to establish as many as 30 new bachelor programs every year at any of its 116 colleges, as long as they weren’t “duplicative” of any existing programs at state universities.

Since the rule change, what is duplicative is a matter of dispute between community colleges and Cal State. As CalMatters’ community colleges reporter Adam Echelman explains, the law has continued to create turf wars between the two higher education systems over competing degree programs.

Cal State Academic Senate is concerned it will lose money if community colleges offer more bachelor’s degrees. Yet, Cal State rejected more than 13,000 community college students who applied for transfer last year. Fewer than 800 California community college students receive bachelor’s degrees a year, and most come from low-income backgrounds or are students of color. The students say that the bachelor’s programs are cheaper and more convenient than the nearest Cal State or UC option.

On July 17, the Community College Chancellor’s Office hired an independent consulting firm to look into duplication concerns, though it appears to have no intention of slowing its quest to woo more students, dismissing a request from Cal State to pause its efforts to apply for new bachelor degree programs.

  • Laura Cantú, vice president of academic affairs for Los Angeles Mission College: “I understand that (Cal State) and UCs may be feeling like community colleges are getting a larger allocation or are stepping into their lane. But there’s a reason why California decided that we should allow community colleges to offer some of the baccalaureates (bachelor’s degrees). It’s a way for us to really provide an onramp, a mechanism, for social mobility.”

CalMatters Commentary

Investing in gun safety education will save children’s lives in California, writes Griffin Dix, co-chairperson of the Oakland/Alameda County chapter of Brady and a gun violence prevention advocate.

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


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Gov. Newsom sends search-rescue workers to Maui wildfire // The Sacramento Bee

California unions revive bid to pay unemployment to striking workers // Politico

Why California officials traveled to Kenya to find solutions to poverty // Los Angeles Times

Students harmed by remote learning can take California to trial // San Francisco Chronicle

For-profit developer will turn state offices into housing // The Sacramento Bee

Newsom signs executive order to hasten levee repairs // Los Angeles Times

CA regulators seek replacement of tire chemical linked to fish kills // The Mercury News

Environmentalists praise court ruling against Valley water district // Los Angeles Times

Chinese-owned lab fueled conspiracy theories, but officials say no danger // AP News

Kaiser Permanente’s national expansion faces skepticism // California Healthline

Class-action lawsuit offers free cash to many LADWP customers // Los Angeles Times

A nonprofit in Marin County is trying to block new housing // San Francisco Chronicle

Closure of 3 Southern California power plants likely to be postponed // AP News

CPUC fines San Diego energy program $1 million // The San Diego Union-Tribune

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