On The Road in San Francisco, Ride a Driverless Taxi
On The Road in San Francisco, Ride a Driverless Taxi
The minutes ticked by and there was still no sign of any public transport. I’m going to be late. Sitting on the side of the road, squinting at Market Street in the US city of San Francisco, I found myself tapping my phone tremblingly, but I couldn’t help but cringe as the minutes passed.
But suddenly the traffic stopped. A faint bell rang on the horizon. Rumble along the railway line on Market Street past my redemption: a 1928 green-and-white wood-paneled tram.
Oh, here’s the irony: I’m about to test out one of the city’s newest transit options while creaking on one of its oldest.
San Francisco has long been a center of transportation innovation. Driverless taxi here that the first cable car system was put into use. It was here that engineers built what was then the longest suspension bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, a structure that would hold the record for nearly 27 years. It is here, now, that a new horizon in transportation is being explored: the self-driving car.
Since June, the state of California has allowed fully self-driving cars to pick up passengers as part of a taxi-like service — without a human driver behind the wheel.
The first company to receive permission for the pilot project is Cruise, a subsidiary of US auto giant General Motors. The second is Waymo, a division of Alphabet Inc and the parent company of Google, which was approved just last month.
On Dec. 16, Waymo expanded its driverless San Francisco service to the entire city, offering 24/7 service. Potential riders can sign up for a waitlist through Waymo’s app, and selected riders have the opportunity to join a “trusted tester” program to try out new features.
Driverless taxi have been in the works for decades: as far back as the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors made a name for itself with the concept of an “autonomous radio-controlled” drive car.
But in recent years, as more and more self-driving cars come out of testing and onto real roads, pedestrians, animals, inclement weather, and other drivers may encounter variables.
The launch wasn’t without its problems. In 2018, a self-driving car killed a woman in Arizona, believed to be the first pedestrian fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle.
A report this summer from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that from July 2021 to May 2022, there were 130 crashes involving “autopilot systems,” but only one accident resulted in a “serious accident.” “harm. The vast majority of crashes result in no injuries at all.
But collisions aren’t the only hurdle these Driverless taxi face. In a document released Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would begin investigating reports that Cruise vehicles were braking in traffic.
The San Francisco Examiner reported an incident last July in which as many as 20 self-driving cars converged on an intersection — and then stopped. Cruise crews were on the scene to move the vehicle blocking southbound traffic.
NHTSA has warned that such incidents not only leave passengers stranded in unsafe locations but also force other vehicles to make “sudden” maneuvers to avoid a broken-down car. The government also noted that these “fixations” could prevent emergency vehicles from passing.
Living in San Francisco, I’m used to seeing driverless cars whizzing by my neighborhood, easily spotted by a layer cake of cameras, servers, and sensors affixed to the roof.
I even started to look forward to them. For example, every car in Cruise’s fleet has a name painted on its side—I’m glad I had the chance to see the latest chi-chi moniker. Once, on my way to the gym, a car named Biscotti passed me. Another guy, Cobalt, walks by with ease on late-night walks.
But, knowing the risks of immobility and crashing, am I ready to entrust my safety to a driverless car called Kombucha? Not quite.
Madhur Behl, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Virginia, hasn’t just been working on self-driving cars for six years: he’s driving them. Last year, Behl and his students sent a fully autonomous car to speeds of up to 199 kilometers per hour (124 mph) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We use the Driverless taxi as a proving ground, as a touchstone, to stress-test the AI [artificial intelligence] algorithms—to find out where the limits of perception lie,” Behl told me over the phone. “What better way than to be in the high-speed, up-close sandbox that racing provides me with?”
But when it comes to putting self-driving cars in real-world settings, Behl is cautious.
In my opinion, the challenge today is that we still cannot fully ensure that autonomous vehicles can operate safely under different and changing real-world conditions, right? Especially if it hasn’t been encountered before,” he said.
With decades of development and millions of dollars at stake, Behl worries about the urgency of “proving the economics of the vehicle.”
There’s a risk that you are pushing deployments much faster than the security of the system can improve the driverless taxi, he said.
Part of the solution, he explained, lies in greater transparency. But currently, there is no federal order that would compel companies to release a full set of safety data.
Essentially, regulatory standards have not kept pace with technological innovation, he said. If they [driverless cars] are deployed publicly, the safety has to be auditable, which is not the case at the moment.
Regulators will also have to work to define the safety implications of self-driving cars, Behl added. An estimated 1.3 million people worldwide die in motor vehicle accidents each year. Not only the safety of passengers must be considered, but also the safety of bystanders.
The logical argument is that it should be better than a human driver, Bell said of self-driving technology. But then the question becomes; Which human driver are you comparing yourself to?
I took Behl’s word back to my destination in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. In front of the local LGBTQ history museum, two people were waiting for me: Sandy Karp, a Waymo PR manager, and her colleague, Jack Wanderman, a product manager.
They were there to accompany me on my first ride in a driverless car.
I’ve been waiting for weeks without success, but after reaching out to the company, Karp – a woman with bright eyes and curly brown hair – responded to my request to use her app program to order a test drive.
She immediately took out her smartphone. Summoning a self-driving car is like using any other ride-hailing app, she explained. She enters our pick-up location and destination into the Waymo app and hits the Request button.
Suddenly, a small piece of confetti explodes on her screen: Our car will arrive in six minutes. What ended up rolling up was a sleek white Jaguar SUV with an LED display on top flashing Karp’s initials.
At first, there seemed to be no way to open the vehicle. Its door handles sit flat on either side. But with one tap of her phone, Karp unlocks the car—the door handle pops out, ready to enter, like a two-dimensional drawing suddenly transformed into 3D.
As we walked in, there was a crisp greeting from the empty car, as if it was a ghost. Sitting in the front seat, Karp flashes her phone screen in my direction; the car utters what she calls a monologue, updating the user on its whereabouts via an app.
Wanderman and Karp invited me to do this: I hit the “Start” button on the car’s interior screen to begin our journey. In response, a female voice blared from the car speakers.
Go to Automat, she says, referring to our destination, a restaurant in San Francisco’s NoPa neighborhood. Make sure you wear your seat belt.
In front of the empty driver’s seat, the steering wheel began to turn strangely by itself. The car turns into traffic. My stomach tightens. My mind wanders to the haunted buggies I remember from my childhood trips to Disney World.
But my reverie was interrupted by a sudden and persistent sound of warnings. “Anyone not wearing a seatbelt?” Cap asked, turning to the backseat. It dawned on me that I was the guilty party, too focused on juggling my tape recorder without wearing my seatbelt first. If you do not buckle up within 15 seconds, it will pull over.
I groped frantically to fasten my seat belt, but it was too late. The female voice returns. “Connect to rider support,” she announces, and seconds later we find ourselves on the phone with a live rep named Jesse.
I’m calling to remind you that you must wear your seatbelt when riding in a Waymo vehicle, Jesse explained. My face flushed when Karp assured him the problem had been fixed.
Our journey to and from the Automat took us up the narrow residential roads of Buena Vista Heights, a steep hill overlooking the city. Soon, we hit our first major obstacle: a boxy brown delivery truck blocking the narrow driveway.
I want the car to stop and consider its next move. A delivery truck looms in front of us. I can’t see it. My head is already spinning with all the turns on our route and can’t figure out how to drive in these conditions.
But Waymo cars are already in action. It smoothly rounded the delivery truck, then ducked into the parking lane to let another vehicle pass. I felt a so many relief in my chest.
Every time we do something as big as this, I get excited, laughs Wanderman. Wanderman has loved working with robots since he was a kid. That prompted him to join Waymo in 2019.
Rolling out driverless cars on the streets of San Francisco is his first big project with the company. Watching the technology grow in dense urban environments, he knew there were complexities to even the most basic operations.
Of course, you have to have physical sensors to see the world. You have to take in all this data and make sense of it, he said, pointing to sensors visible through the car’s transparent roof.
Wanderman explained that the car had to move as it had just executed to decipher the semantics of the situation: Did the delivery truck stop because of an invisible traffic signal or because it was parked side by side?
You have to get that level of perception. Then you have to do what we call behavioral prediction, which is, Okay, here are all the objects around us. What are going to do in the future? Wanderman explained.
After less than 15 minutes of driving, we arrived at our destination, stretched our legs, and squeezed back into the car to head back to the Castro district.
San Francisco’s famous Victorian mansions twinkle in front of our windows. As the car weaves around blind lanes and sweaty joggers, I find myself thinking about the future: How will driverless technology change the city I love?
Proponents of self-driving cars often cite driverless technology as equating to a more convenient future that allows people of all ages and abilities to drive themselves to places that public transportation cannot.
In the future, the urban landscape will transform as parking spaces become less necessary. After all, a driverless car could simply go around a neighborhood or navigate home on its own.
But Adam Millard-Ball, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, sounded a warning. He hypothesizes that self-driving cars could cruise around cities like San Francisco, driverless, without needing to stop, exacerbating congestion.
Most cities don’t have the physical space for unlimited free car use, he said in a phone interview. That destroys what makes a city livable and attractive.
By the end of my first driverless ride, I found myself full of questions: about landscape and livability, isolation and identity. It reminds me of an article published more than a century ago by a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1908, bemoaning the rise of the horseless carriage in other words, the automobile.
He expressed many of the same fears he shares today; that reckless driving of these machines could lead to wanton death, not to mention the fact that the ruthless vehicles lack life companions.
It’s easy to dismiss his concerns as brain-wringing—but the truth is that horseless carriages have changed our lives indelibly in ways beyond his modest predictions. The future of driverless technology may surprise us all.
But when I returned to the streets of San Francisco, I was wavering about the future of the car in the same vertiginous way I’ve felt about cars past and present; I was motion sick.
Driverless taxis to become a major form of transport ‘in 10 years’