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San Francisco robotaxi traffic jam is a warning to the world, says city official 

The day after California approved an expansion of driverless taxis, 10 of them came to a grinding halt on a busy San Francisco street, creating a gridlock that encompassed several blocks.

10-car back-up of autonomous taxis came blamed on wireless bandwidth issues during popular music festival

A long line of cars on a San Francisco street, with a white driverless taxi at the front.

The day after California approved an expansion of driverless taxis, 10 of them came to a grinding halt on a busy San Francisco street, creating a gridlock that encompassed several blocks.

The culprit? A music festival.

"Cell phones were overwhelmed, and as a result, they were not able to take control of these cars — which is a pretty frightening systemic defect," Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (SFBV), told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter.

Not only was there the 10-car back-up of Cruise-owned autonomous taxis in city's North Shore neighbourhood on Friday, but on the other side of the city, closer to the Outside Lands music festival, Peskin said "there were also scores of them that came to a grinding halt."

"I got … tons of texts and emails and phone calls from pissed-off constituents," he said.

The SFBV is using the incidents to petition the state to revoke its approved expansion of self-driving taxis until this issue — and others like it — are resolved.

"We're not trying to put the genie back in the bottle, but we are quite concerned that they are rushing things, that it should still be in a testing phase," Peksin said.

"The notion that the state of California has now allowed unlimited numbers of them while these problems continue to persist is a public safety hazard."

In an emailed statement, Cruise said the company "successfully transported thousands of concert-goers, amidst widespread reports of traffic congestion, contributing to a very small portion of traffic blockages overall on Friday night."

"We addressed these issues and did not see any recurrence throughout the Saturday or Sunday concert days," spokesperson Drew Pusateri said.

"We're in communication with regulators about this event and how we plan to continue improving our operations serving riders seeking safe, driverless transportation to and from large events."

A controversial expansion

San Francisco has long been at the forefront of testing autonomous vehicles, and when it comes to robotaxis, there are two major players — Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, and Waymo, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet.

Collectively, they have more than 500 autonomous vehicles in operation citywide.

Waymo did not respond to a request for comment. Both companies have repeatedly asserted their robotaxis are safer than human drivers, have not caused any deaths or life-threatening injuries over millions of collective kilometres driven and that real-world testing is critical to perfecting the technology.

A group of people gathered outside wielding signs that read, 'Women for driverless cars, 'Road rage? Nope' and 'End Drunk Driving.'

The day before the headline-grabbing traffic jam, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), in a 3-1 vote, approved a plan to allow Cruise and Waymo to start offering driverless trips to paying customers, 24 hours a day.

Before the vote, the companies were only allowed to offer fared service without a safety driver during certain times and in limited parts of the city — but could offer free driverless service anywhere and any time.

"While we do not yet have the data to judge [autonomous vehicles] against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway," CPUC commissioner John Reynolds said in a press release.

"Collaboration between key stakeholders in the industry and the first responder community will be vital in resolving issues as they arise in this innovative, emerging technology space."

A man points to a large painting depicting first responders trying in vain to stop a driverless taxi. On the stairs behind him are signs that read: 'Defend Human Labor Over Billionaire Profits!' 'Habe AI Tae Ober CPUC & Newsome' and 'Tests for Drivers, No DMV tests for Robo Taxis.'

Peskin says it all comes down to money as both companies compete for a slice of the marketplace.

"They would much rather start recouping on their billions of dollars of investments in this technology than to smooth out the rough edges at the front end," he said.

Not a new phenomenon for San Francisco

What happened on Friday is far from unique, Peskin said. San Franciscans are used to autonomous vehicles, he said, and have made a sport of documenting their glitches on social media.

What's new, he said, is that Cruise, in a social media statement, blamed Friday's glitches on "wireless bandwidth constraints" from the festival, which "delayed connectivity to our vehicles."

Lots of things can knock out or slow down wireless bandwidth, Peskin says — and that "scares the heck out of our first responders."

A white car with a bright orange Cruise logo on the door and the words "Join the driverless revolution"

The SFBV, he said, has already documented 60 incidents of autonomous vehicles interfering with first responders.

"They have blocked fire engines. They've gone into downed power cables in a windstorm in March," he said. "These cars are good in normal circumstances, but they do not know how to behave in an emergency situation."

WATCH | The risks of driverless cars:

He's calling on other jurisdictions to take heed.

"San Francisco is the canary in the coal mine and the issues that we are experiencing and that we are raising will soon sweep across cities … around the world," he said.

"I would suggest to the good people of Canada and to other cities and states in the United States that they start putting the regulatory mechanisms in place that we were sadly lacking in California."

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