Los Angeles demands robotaxi rulemaking powers

LA mayor wants the city, not a state agency, to regulate commercial AVs operations

Mayor Karen Bass says Los Angeles — not a state agency — should have the power to decide how robotaxi companies expand in the city.

As Waymo expands its operations in the city, Bass sent an open letter to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates commercial robotaxi operations in California, arguing that Los Angeles should hold that ultimate authority. In the letter, Bass said the city is “equipped with the tools to effectively regulate AV service within its jurisdiction” and that LA “should determine the requirements for future deployment.”

The mayor isn’t exactly in step with certain LA councilmembers, who told robotaxi companies last week to take a hike over safety and job-loss concerns. Instead, Bass says she aims to both “maximize the benefits” of emerging tech and “mitigate harm across our diverse communities.” And she wants the city to make that call. 

The letter is more than a local politician flexing against a state agency. Bass is using her platform as mayor of the second-largest U.S. city to highlight how little control local lawmakers have over technology that will affect their own citizens. Other mayors, who grappled with the consequences of ride-hailing apps and shared micromobility, may also take up Bass’ fight. That could hinder the commercial aspirations of autonomous-vehicle companies like Waymo that are just starting to scale.

The letter also reads as if Bass is taking the opportunity to get ahead of a political crisis.

“Local jurisdictions like Los Angeles have had little to no input in AV deployment and are already seeing significant harm and disruption,” the mayor wrote. The phrase “jurisdictions like” is doing a whole lot of work here. The mayor cited one LA-specific example, in which she said a robotaxi “could not properly identify or obey an officer who was directing traffic.” (The letter didn’t name the company responsible, but it apparently wasn’t a Cruise vehicle. The company has paused its operations everywhere, and before doing so, it did not operate vehicles in LA without a human behind the wheel, a Cruise spokesperson told TechCrunch.)

Still, the mayor argues that Los Angeles faces an “exponentially greater” risk from “unrestricted AV deployment,” by nature of the city’s larger population and size.

What can LA even do?

Bass said LA is “equipped with the tools” to oversee AVs, yet some LA city councilmembers aren’t clear on how to do so. Transportation Committee officials called for more transparency around AV data on Wednesday, to inform future actions by councilmembers. During the session, the committee advanced two AV motions, one of which asked for a report on the city’s “existing authority to regulate such use” of AVs. The other motion requested LA’s city attorney to join San Francisco’s request for a rehearing with the Public Utilities Commission to reevaluate the regulator’s recent robotaxi expansion rulings.

Fortuitously, or perhaps to get out ahead of the mayor’s letter, a Waymo spokesperson called on the LA city council earlier in the day to consider its track record separately from its competitors. LA lawmakers have mostly focused on reports involving Cruise AVs in their public statements to date. 

Reached for comment, Cruise spokesperson Navideh Forghani pointed TechCrunch to a safety study commissioned by the company. Forghani also noted that Cruise recently updated how its AVs respond to emergency vehicles.

Waymo spokesperson Christopher Bonelli said the company is “disappointed in the mayor’s decision to oppose the deployment of autonomous vehicles in Los Angeles.” Bonelli added that Waymo does not “believe the letter is an accurate representation of Waymo and our experience.” While expressing disappointment, the spokesperson indicated that Waymo would still continue expanding in LA.

It’s worth noting that Waymo might also be getting ahead of itself here; the LA mayor’s letter did not specify the degree to which she would like to see robotaxis reigned in.

Mayor Bass did not cite the labor concerns linked to driverless tech, but they’re a key driver behind recent anti-robotaxi rallies. The Teamsters union in particular is in direct talks with lawmakers, including Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez, about regulating robotaxi expansion.

Correction: Waymo did not expand its LA operations on November 1. It started its LA county expansion on October 12, in Santa Monica.