the honorable mayor of san francisco

An interview with Mark Farrell, the 44th Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco


The following is a transcript of the audio available via the player above.  The audio file is the definitive source.

Ali Tabibian:    00:04    Welcome, welcome, welcome everyone to this episode of Tech, Cars, Machines, and this time it's going to be Tech, Cars, Regulation. In the opening audio, you heard some really beautiful sounds from San Francisco bay- our foghorns, the seagulls, which we hear if you're close to the bay. And the reason you're hearing those sounds is because today we're going to be talking to the Mayor of San Francisco, Mr. Mark Farrell, the 44th Mayor of this great city. 

Ali Tabibian:    00:30    The Mayor's intersection with the world of self-driving cars came to our attention a few weeks ago. In particular, we were really surprised to see Mayor Farrell write an open letter to about 50 entities involved in the self-driving world, requesting local safety assessment processes and additional input from these companies into how these vehicles operate in various environments, and whether they're safe to do so or not. And this was well before the recent, very prominent, headlines about a pedestrian fatality in the case of an Uber self driving vehicle, and driver fatalities in the case of Tesla vehicles operating on auto-pilot. This was really surprising to us because most Mayors, most governors, and many private companies are typically very eager and frequently unquestioning in their attempts to get a piece of the technology pie, and especially a piece of the self-driving market. For the Mayor of probably the worlds most prominent technology hub, San Francisco, to hold his hand up and say "wait a minute, can somebody please explain what this is all about?" make sure that there's a lot more input into the government while people proceed?" was eye catching for those reasons. 

Ali Tabibian:    01:45    Now it's frequently fashionable for people to blame the government for slowing down innovation. In this particular case we'd like to note two things- one, the Mayor is a successful private business person himself. He's a former attorney, he's a former banker, and he's currently a venture capitalist. Not typically the kind of person you would think would try to slow down innovation, and of course that's not what he's trying to do. Given this background, for him to raise a hand as a public servant in this case and say "wait a minute, please provide some explanations before these cars start rolling around on our streets," tells you something about how much there is left for these self-driving market to do to provide comfort to the public as they hope to roll these vehicles into the public domain. 

Ali Tabibian:    02:32    Second, very few industries owe as much to government as the technology industry. The internet itself was famously incubated by the department of defense. In automobiles, defense, space and weather agencies are responsible for the critical global positioning systems, the GPS systems, and had a hand in developing the Lidar, the laser radar technology so prevalent, and so critical, to the operation of autonomous vehicles. Here's another example- the federal government in the 1990s/late 1990s took military parts of the frequency spectrum and allocated it for use by the automotive industry for automotive radar shortly after that industry requested it. The now prevalent autonomous breaking, intelligent cruise control, and many other systems would not have happened had the government not done this, and they did it in a fairly straightforward and efficient fashion. So we need to listen to Mark carefully as he describes why there's more work to be done on the part of the industry to get the buy in of the public sector into their operations. 

Ali Tabibian:    03:37    During this interview you'll hear mark refer to something called TNC's. This stands for transportation network company. This is the phrase that companies like Uber and Lyft use to argue that they're not, and therefore should not be regulated as, taxi companies. You'll hear the Mayor elude to this, and basically acknowledge that those companies manage to get away with it, but that has raised the antennas of municipal governments to get ahead of the introduction of some of these new features and new technologies. Because regardless of the public benefits, they have created a lot of headaches for municipal government in terms of managing congestion, in the case of home sharing like Homeaway and Airbnb, managing the conflicts between neighbors and zoning issues, and more importantly in the case of self driving vehicles, also managing safety issues. 

Ali Tabibian:    04:29    Without further ado, lets hear from mark Farrell. 

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Ali Tabibian:    04:40    Mr. Mayor, as I've mentioned before its an extreme pleasure to be here, we appreciate you taking the time.

Ali Tabibian:    04:45    What made you focus on this issue, and write your public open letter? And I would remind our listeners that this happened a few weeks before some of the recent accidents with Uber, the unfortunate accident with Uber in Arizona, and Tesla on some of our local roads.

Mark Farrell:    04:59    To be honest with you, it came and was born out of reaction to some action that was taken at the state level in California. And here in California, we have a quirk of jurisdiction, that local cities do not have control over autonomous vehicles. It's at the state level. And so we were informed that the state had made rule that beginning on April second, here in 2018, they would begin and be open to issuing permits for autonomous vehicles on roads throughout the state of California, which obviously included the city of San Francisco. 

Mark Farrell:    05:33    We have a lot of jurisdictional issues related to TNC's, Uber and Lyft, that a regulated at the state level and again, not at the local level, a lot of frustration over that because these are obviously companies that are having significant impact on our roads, significant concerns, and quite frankly benefits as well, to our residents. But we have zero say as a local Government in San Francisco, how they are governed. And so when we saw this letter, I was very concerned that without any oversight, without quite frankly any interaction with the city of San Francisco's Government, we would start to have autonomous vehicles on our roads, and we wouldn't even know about it. And so what I did is ask these companies to come together proactively, voluntarily, to meet with our city government. 

Mark Farrell:    06:23    And the thing that concerned me the most is that they have an appropriate interface with police, fire and sheriffs departments. Because as you think about, the biggest concern for me is public safety. And you mentioned the safety of our loved ones, whether it be our family and our little kids here in the streets of San Francisco, but the public safety of everyday residents in our city. And the notion that they would be driving autonomous vehicles on our roads without us even knowing about it, and without having any interface with our city government and particularly our public safety departments, causes a lot of concern. Our fire department needs to know ,if they have to use the jaws of life in an accident, where the vulnerabilities are in these cars that they're driving. Our police officers, obviously they can't pull an autonomous vehicle over and ask for the driver's license and registration, right? So we have to think about ways, as a city government, to interact autonomous vehicles if and when they do come on our road for the longterm. 

Mark Farrell:    07:14    You know we've spent a lot of time thinking about it as a city government, and it's just important to have that dialog. Right now its voluntary, its proactive, but I was very encouraged by the dialog that we did have. And I think it bares well for the future, I think we're a long ways away for it becoming primetime on our streets, but we need to have that interface. And unfortunately the state laws that were allowing the permits to be issued or the potential of it to be issued, were very vague, really didn't put a lot of public safety restrictions on these companies. They literally could have handed us on a post card their public safety plan, and that would have sufficed. And we take things very seriously in San Francisco, especially around public safety, so that was the purpose of the meeting.

Ali Tabibian:    07:58    So essentially, it sounds like generally, while we may not have a problem with federal or state mandated sets of behaviors, lets say by anyone who operates in the public domain, in this case the state really didn't provide a lot of guidance at all. Is that essentially the issue?

Mark Farrell:    08:13    Its two-fold. Its one, that their permit authorization forms, if you will, weren't very specific around public safety. And again, as Mayor of the city of San Francisco that to me is job one, as you think about autonomous vehicles. I'll leave the technology piece of me aside and the excitement potentially for the future of our city and the world, that's down the road. Right now, it's about public safety. And by the way it always will be about public safety. But not only were they not specific, there are different times when state and federal level have different forms of jurisdiction but we also have jurisdiction here at the local level. In California, we are stripped of jurisdiction at the city level. We don't have any jurisdiction over these vehicles. And so the vagueness of the state potential permitting system, but then the fact that as a city, we literally have no control over this. 

Mark Farrell:    09:06    As Mayor, I felt it was uncommon to actually step into this arena, step into the forefront, and say "hold on, before you start issuing permits a few weeks from now, let's all get together and let's understand the status of your technology, can you please do some briefings with our public safety departments and the officials in those departments that are really tasked with monitoring this technology? So we can literally start a dialog together?" And that's what happened. 

Ali Tabibian:    09:33    One of the, if you will, the downsides of having the good weather we do, is that it's a city with a very good mix of high density and low density environments, with good weather, that doesn't typically create the noise problems that rain and snow does for these vehicles, we're kind of a natural choice for a place to test these vehicles. LA doesn't quite have some four very dense areas, San Diego doesn't, Phoenix doesn't. And then if you go to Chicago or New York or Boston, too often these vehicles just can't operate on the road in those weather conditions. 

Mark Farrell:    10:05    It was enlightening to walk through these demonstrations as well and the different technologies that they use and to see, quite frankly, how their mapping technologies both through the different types of sensors. But also in San Francisco when we have down trees, what does that do? How do these autonomous vehicles or how do they not interpret the roads at that point in time? How do they go around them and how does that affect other vehicles on the road? So we do have a great, as you mentioned, environment for testing. That being said, it is far from foolproof. Just in those demonstrations you see all the dramatic changes to our roadways in San Francisco whether it be construction, which we obviously have a lot of right now, whether it be down trees or other types of obstructions that just come onto our roadways, pedestrians that are walking against the grain, if you will. It highlighted a lot of flaws and a lot of work that needed to be done. 

Ali Tabibian:    10:54    And Mark, there you were referring to your request for a voluntary industry confab, I guess I'd call it, or a conference that happened on March 22nd. Tell us a little bit more about what were the surprises, what were the assurances you were offered, the results, the next steps. I do believe the proceedings were private, but whatever you're comfortable sharing would be very interesting for our listeners. 

Mark Farrell:    11:16    In between calling for the meeting and the meeting itself, the accident with Uber down in Arizona had happened which was obviously tragic and unfortunate. I would say leading up into that point in time, we had a really good response rate. After which, we had a great response rate. Everybody we asked to come to the table came, and I'm appreciative of that, because we want to be inclusive with our dialog. I was surprised at how many companies showed up. I was also surprised at how well prepared our public safety departments were to engage on this issue. We have had ... We had power point presentations from our public safety departments asking them different questions and walking them through concerns, to really start that dialog. And it's important to have these autonomous vehicle companies, whether it be the OEMs or the software providers, or maybe the consumer companies as well, understand what our questions are as a city government. 

Mark Farrell:    12:10    A lot of these questions they haven't thought of. And it was helpful for them to say "you know what, that's a good point, I didn't think of it from your perspective. Let us work on that." It did highlight to me how far we have to go before this becomes real on our streets ...

Ali Tabibian:    12:26    You mean as a technology or [crosstalk 00:12:28]

Mark Farrell:    12:28    As a widely available consumer technology that both government and consumers are comfortable with. I think it's a long ways down the road. It's exciting, it's new, it's awesome, but there's so much left to be done. I really think we're in the top of the first year. 

Ali Tabibian:    12:46    Mark let me parse that a little bit, and when you say that, you are explicitly talking about your impression of these vehicles can do, and less so what the government can eventually accommodate whatever regulatory adjustments need to be made? Am I correctly paraphrasing?

Mark Farrell:    13:03    Yeah, I would say one of the surprising things was walking through the demonstrations, again how inspiring this technology is, but also thinking about where we are today vs where there that kind of real world application on our streets, the "I'm gonna click on my app and an autonomous vehicle is gonna come pick me up." It just strikes me were a long ways away. And its not only that were a long ways away from a government perspective, and thinking this is ready for primetime, but I also got the sense, which I was very encouraged by, is that even these companies, and mind you we just had the accident down in Arizona about a week before the meeting actually happened, I really do believe that these companies are gonna have a flight to quality. Because the only way that they're gonna gain their trust from what will be a skeptical universe I think, on the large part, there'll be a group of our population eager to try it and be the first adopters, but I think there's gonna be a large [inaudible 00:14:07] of the population that's going to be very cautious. 

Mark Farrell:    14:08    I think there's gonna be this flight to quality and these companies are not incented to skirt government regulations or do it cheaply to just be the first ones on the street. I actually think they wanna do it right, because they realize that any accident that they have, it's going to be blamed on this autonomous vehicle technology and really paint not only their own companies, but the industry, with a bad brush. So that was also very interesting to me. And to see really how those wheels were turning. 

Ali Tabibian:    14:35    Did you feel that these companies were ready to take advantage of the freedom that the state had given them?

Mark Farrell:    14:41    Not even close. No way. And to their credit, they weren't ready either. And they acknowledged that. We haven't seen any permits pulled since and I think we're a ways away from that. Look, when a company is ready and if they are ready from a technology perspective and in my point of view, public safety perspective, that's great. We should welcome it. And as fast as their technology can advance, I'm all for it. But it needs to be viewed I believe not only from a government perspective, but I think it will be viewed from a consumer perspective as a public safety first question. 

Ali Tabibian:    15:16    Very much so. So sounds like when Mark Rosekind, who's the former National Highway Transportation Safety Board professional, and the current Zoox executive, when he got up, I believe he was the only executive to talk after the confab. He said we're not ready for primetime. So it sounds like it wasn't as maybe a controversial statement as it maybe sounded like or as it was reported to be after that. 

Mark Farrell:    15:40    Yeah I would agree with that. When the companies were being honest in the room I think there's a lot of hype around technology and companies will, especially those that are private, will hype their next products and be excited about it, but I really appreciate as well, Zoox's approach. They were one of the first ones to agree to come, were very transparent with us as a city government. We wanted to make sure that we protected their proprietary technology [inaudible 00:16:10] the other companies in the room, and we did that with some of the people that offered us demonstrations. But Zoox has been a really good partner thinking through these issues and I really appreciate Marks, not only his background, but his approach, so incredibly willing and wanting to work with our city government to solve these issues together. And quite frankly, that's what we need at the end of the day. You know there's certain companies that have succeeded, some of them, by disregarding local governments and they've made headway because of it, and quite frankly that was the right approach for those companies. I think for the autonomous vehicle world, when you're really dealing with a lot more public safety issues, I think the right approach is to partner with local governments. 

Mark Farrell:    16:55    And I think what these companies will find, I would imagine not just me as Mayor of San Francisco, but other jurisdictions as well, is a desire to partner together. No one wants to be a road block, but people just wanna get it right. And obviously every jurisdiction is different, every elected official is different, so you can't control for all the crazy masses out there. But I will say that at least in the city government of San Francisco right now, April 2018, you have a very willing partner that wants to work with these companies so that were ready as a government, and that they're ready as well. 

Ali Tabibian:    17:29    And it's also, what it sounds like you were being ... As part of the discussions, it seems like the focus really has been on personal autonomous vehicles or sort of passenger vehicles. Less so about a push to maybe autonomize buses, small shuttles, doesn't seem like that push is there, right? Its' really the major OEMs as well as the way [inaudible 00:17:51] the Zoox's of the world, basically pushing for your typical sudan, if you will, or mini van. 

Mark Farrell:    17:56    Yeah, no, that's exactly right. Being spontaneous about this I imagine that the bigger buses are a lot harder to control, and they have a lot more risk in terms of their physical presence on the road and how they're able to be controlled or not. But yeah, without a doubt, ' been the typically Lyft, Uber, taxi pick-up type conversation and how that translates into an autonomous vehicle. Bu you know what, if they get that right, then on to the bigger ones. But I also find it interesting, some of the bigger transactions that have happened just on my background in this space. You think about auto, and I mean, we're talking about big rig trucks and the technology around those, and [inaudible 00:18:38] kits that they're retrofitted with. So I think it's a fascinating time for the industry, I think it's gonna be fascinating for a long time to come. But the winners are going to reap big rewards but I think there's gonna be a long road to home, a lot of wood to chop before those winners are really determined. 

Ali Tabibian:    18:54    Were there any requests from city government, or does San Francisco have a plan to help the acceleration of the adoption of these ... lets just stick to driverless, not so much the scooters and the Ubers and all that but just the driverless vehicles, for example allowing the instillation of beacon infrastructure, or something to help these vehicles along. Has that been a request or any suggestions or does the city have particular view?

Mark Farrell:    19:18    It really hasn't come up. You know, I'm a huge proponent of technology within our city government, always have been. We've been working for years on a [inaudible 00:19:27] premise here in San Francisco for every home and business and connecting it to the internet. I mean that's about the future and the future infrastructure of our city. The internet needs to be viewed as a utility, not a nice to have part of our lives today. However, I think right now the approach in terms of adoption or advancement of this technology, this is really about government waiting to see what develops from the private sector, and hopefully being a partner with the private sector to understand where we're coming form from a public safety point of view, to help guide maybe some questions that they might wanna answer, some features that they might want to put into their technology, into their vehicles. But its not really being talked about what is the government doing to promote autonomous vehicles. That's a little bit far. 

Mark Farrell:    20:15    To me it's more about the government being open to partnering together, and saying we want to partner together, but again the government shouldn't be in the business of promoting certain parts of our private sector over other. We have a busy enough time making sure our streets are clean and our parks are safe, but that being said again, we wanna make sure that certainly in San Francisco, as we sit here as the technology capital of the world, the innovation hub of the world, that our own streets were open. And we're open to working with our partners in the technology community to advance whatever they're doing to make life better for our residents. As we talk about autonomous vehicles, I absolutely stand by that, again, this segment of our private sector in particular in this industry has a huge potential to affect public safety. I think therefore, our government and I as Mayor have a much more keen interest in working together and being on top of this technology to make sure that whenever it does come to our streets and these cars do come on our roads, that we are ready for them, as a local government from a public safety point of view. 

Mark Farrell:    21:23    And of course I'm going to be making sure the state, and letting the state know my concerns and making sure that the state stays on top of making sure that they're safe to begin with. Again, unfortunately from my point of view, regulated all at the state level, so that being said its incoming upon us to lobby our own state officials to make sure that they know that we care about public safety and any issues that we see at the local government level as we interact with these companies that the state is aware of them. 

Mark Farrell:    21:48    I don't think anybody, state, local government, the autonomous vehicle companies, again no matter where they play, the Uber/Lyft of the world, the OEMs, the technology providers as well, or just the software companies, no one has interest in providing an unsafe product out on the roads. And I think you've seen a retraction in the last month since the Uber incident down in Arizona. We'll see how long that retraction lasts, but I think it's here to stay for a little bit. Because the next time a vehicle gets out on the road, and this is the challenging part for this entire industry. Even if a pedestrian would have been otherwise been hit by a car, because maybe there's a jaywalking, or darting in front of a car from behind a car, any number of incidents. Even if an accident would have happened irrespective, whether there's a driver or autonomous vehicle, if it is an autonomous vehicle that hit somebody, that incident and accident will be blamed on the autonomous vehicle industry.

Ali Tabibian:    22:53    And your sense is that the people around you inside the city government will be prone to thinking about it the same way?

Mark Farrell:    22:59    Its a natural reaction.

Ali Tabibian:    22:59    Its a natural reaction. 

Mark Farrell:    23:00    Yeah, when you are changing the status quo, the unfortunate burden is you are brought to answer, and brought to task, for incidents that might have happened otherwise but if they happen on your watch, with your autonomous vehicle, you're going to be held accountable. And I think that is a hurdle, a much higher hurdle than people might otherwise think about for this industry that will have to be overcome. Which again, just speaks to the fact that they really need to work very hard on perfecting, but getting to that 99 percent for their own technology before it becomes massively adopted.

Ali Tabibian:    23:39    Thank you Mr. Mayor, I want to be respectful of the time you've given us, is there anything else you'd like to add that maybe we didn't talk about?

Mark Farrell:    23:47    As I mention to all the companies, as Mayor of the city of San Francisco, this is the future. And I'm excited about it. It's the future of our roads and our country and likely around the world and certainly here in or city and we embrace that, but at the same point in time I think its incoming upon everyone to understand, and I hope agree, that public safety is number one. This is not like an Airbnb where public safety could be an issue there but that's not really the same thing. Renting out a studio on Airbnb doesn't have the potential impact of an autonomous vehicle either doing great things or unfortunately getting into an accident. SO it really has the ability on our congested roads of San Francisco to have massive public safety affect. And so we wanna make sure we do it right. And I'm encouraged so far by the dialogue, I think it's a long term dialog, that were just beginning, but its exciting, again, but I wanna make sure that we continue to keep our eye on the ball of public safety. Plain and simple. 

Ali Tabibian:    24:44    Great. Thank you so much, it's been a real pleasure. 

Mark Farrell:    24:47    Thank you. 

Voiceover:    24:48    Tech, Cars, Machines! Subscribe here or at