SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Driving around San Francisco can feel a little spooky these days, especially when the car next to you is driving without a human behind the wheel.

Driverless cars, also known as Autonomous Vehicles or AVs, are becoming more common in the tech-centric city.

Two local tech companies, Cruise and Waymo, received a green light from the California Public Utilities Commission to deploy AVs on the streets for testing and training. San Francisco became a test city for California’s driverless pilot program.

Troubling traffic incidents, however, have ensued. San Francisco drivers encountered and recorded many bizarre scenes in recent months when Cruise and Waymo cars stalled out.

There were 91 AV-related traffic incidents in April alone, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reported.

SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun wrote to KRON4 Thursday, “This technology is still in development and is simply not ready to operate 24/7 in the city.  AVs are creating hazards in our streets and companies need to take San Francisco’s foundational transportation policies into account: Transit First, Vision Zero and our Climate Action policy. Several minutes of driverless AV stalled on Muni rail tracks can cause several hours of disrupted transit service.”

On Thursday, the SFMTA released four key challenges that AVs create in the city: 

  • Bricking: “When human drivers get confused or have engine trouble, they find a safe place to pull over and sort things out. When AVs get confused, they simply stop wherever they happen to be. In the middle of an intersection, on our train tracks, in front of a fire station. Most of the time, a human operator must then travel from somewhere else in the city to rescue the vehicle. This can take 15 min, creating traffic chaos and safety issues.” 
  • Pick-up and drop-off: “Almost all passenger pick-up and drop-off occurs in the traffic lane, not at the curb. Parallel parking is hard. This is OK on residential streets or late at night, when passenger service is currently allowed. But it’s not OK on arterials or during peak traffic. It also creates safety hazards for other motorists and bicyclists having to go into the oncoming lane to get around a stopped AV.” 
  • Judgment: “AVs are good at handling all basic driving maneuvers. But they don’t understand how to interact with humans. They can be very slow to understand officers directing traffic at our busiest intersections, and when they get confused they brick in traffic. They don’t understand when a building is on fire, and firefighters are waving the AV away, and they brick on an active fire hose, because they apparently have trouble ‘seeing’ fire hoses.  They also have trouble seeing small things like yellow caution tape.  They drove right through and get tangled in our high voltage downed Muni lines, or a big tree blocking the street. They are baffled by construction sites.”
  • Data: “SF streets can handle a good deal of chaos.”  

Chun wrote to KRON4, “Giving unlimited approval to companies that are both having trouble in ways that create new hazards on the roads is not advisable.  Especially since the Commission isn’t even collecting data to document those hazards.  The CPUC should be giving only limited approvals and should put standards in place that address those hazards and allow expansion only on an incremental basis.”

AV incidents are reported from a number of sources — the primary being 911 calls to the Department of Emergency Management, SFFD, SFMTA staff, and media. These incidents include cars stopping unexpectedly, driving erratically, and collisions.

Chun said social media is sometimes the first to report incidents.

“Cruise primarily, and Waymo secondarily have consistently refused to share data with the city,” SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “We learn more from social media and our experiences on the street than they are willing to share with us.”

Number of AV Incidents in SF, according to SFMTA:

Apr ’223
May ’2231
Jun ’22141
Jul ’2211
Aug ’228
Sep ’22211
Oct ’228
Nov ’221212
Dec ’22274
Jan ’23195
Feb ’2319101
Mar ’2359343
Apr ’2357304

Data for the months of May through July of 2023 was not available.

Chun said the SFMTA is hopeful that automated driving can improve traffic safety in the future. 

Chun added, “However, we are not there yet. We must ensure that AV services protect the public interest and safety, not just the interests of AV passengers. The CPUC has a duty to protect public safety, and we are urging it to do just that. We look forward to working further with Commissioners and industry representatives to find the best way to move forward in the public interest.”