San Francisco (E24): The taxi maintains a constant speed when an outside restaurant appears. The simple wooden building is located right on the side of the road. It might look like we’re going to hit him.
However, the car does not slow down, and we cannot ask the driver to take things seriously.
There’s no one in the driver’s seat.
We’re boarding one of several hundred self-driving taxis in San Francisco that can now transport paying passengers around the clock.
This particular vehicle was developed by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, but Alphabet-owned Waymo also recently received permission to run commercial taxi operations in the city – with no limits on the number of cars.
The decision was made by a government agency, amid strong protests from local authorities in San Francisco.
– I’m not trying to be dramatic, but this will lead to deaths, City Council President Aaron Peskin tells E24.
He believes the technology has potential, and stresses that they are not trying to “put the genie back in the bottle.” However, he believes that state authorities are on the wrong track when they do not implement stricter regulations.
Instead of unlimited expansion, companies should be allowed to expand gradually, when they are able to handle the security breaches we have documented, Peskin says.
It collided with the fire truck
San Francisco has long been the first testing ground for self-driving cars. You can see them roaming everywhere, carrying technology to the surface.
But as the service expands, more and more unfortunate incidents with robotaxis have also been recorded.
Last year, San Francisco authorities recorded about 600 accidents, including illegal turns and sudden stops in the middle of traffic.
Some stories are almost comical, like when a self-driving car recently got stuck in wet cement.
Others are more terrifying.
In January, for example, a Cruise taxi entered an active crime scene that was cordoned off with police tape, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail. San Francisco Chronicle. A few months later, one of Waymo’s vehicles reportedly entered a construction site and stopped at the edge of an open trench where tradesmen were working.
On a number of occasions, vehicles also stuck sticks in the wheels of the city’s emergency services.
The fire service has noted more than 55 instances in which it has had to deal with a robo-taxi, most recently in mid-August, a self-driving taxi collided with a fire engine during an emergency call.
– There’s something going on almost every day, says Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson.
She tells of one case in which an ambulance was denied access to an injured pedestrian. Fire trucks have also been blocked several times on their way out of the fire station because a self-driving car was stuck outside – apparently programmed to stop at the sight of flashing red lights.
The fire chief points out that these challenges lead to a longer response time, which can have very serious consequences.
“I really hope no one gets seriously injured or loses their life as a result of this,” she says.
Neither Cruise nor Waymo responded to E24’s questions on this matter, despite repeated inquiries. But both companies have long highlighted safety as the most important feature of self-driving cars.
Last month, Cruz ran full-page ads in both local newspapers and the New York Times, emphasizing that their cars are designed to save lives.
The robots are never distracted, sleepy or drunk. They don’t text while driving and are programmed to follow traffic rules. The lack of human error makes it safer, the argument goes.
It is also electric.
In the proceedings of San Francisco Chronicle Waymo CEO Tekdra Mawakana reiterates that message, while also accusing the city’s transportation authorities of misleading statistics.
– More than 100 people die on the roads in the USA every day, Mwakana writes.
He points out that Waymo cars have traveled more than 1.6 million kilometers without a driver behind the wheel. However, they were never involved in any collisions with cyclists or pedestrians. He claims that collisions with other cars are usually caused by the other side.
On our first trip, we are greeted in the car by “Oregano” by a metallic female voice. It’s a little past 10 p.m., and the voice tells us to take the back seat and fasten our seatbelts. We press a button to start the ride, and the car takes off.
First, the car rolls down a steep hill in San Francisco at 40 kilometers per hour, then slows to the left and stops at a pedestrian.
Then it picks up speed again, passing a guy on a skateboard and zigzagging between two passenger cars that have stopped in the middle of the road.
Then the taxi suddenly stops in the middle of a traffic light, apparently for no reason.
Once there, we are dropped off two blocks from our original point of arrival. There we open the app to book a new ride and are told the next taxi will arrive in fifteen minutes.
Meanwhile, Juan Villas gets off another self-driving taxi.
He says he’s from Mexico City, but is in town on business and wanted to try out a motorized taxi “to get a feel of it.”
– I thought it would be more bizarre, but it actually worked out well, he says, before moving on.
On our side, the wait for the second taxi was getting longer. When the expected arrival time is fifteen minutes late, we cancel and request a new appointment. It arrives at the agreed time, but it stops halfway into the transit area, so the bus has to pass by.
Other travelers are filming as the car pulls off, and we’re just round the corner when the outside dining area appears.
The taxi passes – just centimeters away.
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The next week, we tried Waymo, which has started offering paid rides during the day.
The first taxi ushered us smoothly into a busy area, before stopping in the middle of the road to drop us off.
– Crazy, mutters a man in a white shirt, sitting on a bench and smoking.
In the second round, it’s a complete taxi shuffle.
We had just walked around a block when we realized the car had started on the same course again. On the GPS we clearly see that it will turn right at the intersection, but appears to be overtaken as it approaches.
Turn left and do another round around the quarter, over and over.
The sixth time we press a button for help. The car ends up parking so we can get out and get a ten dollar Waymo credit.
A rather innocent example, which nonetheless serves to prove one of the main points of Berkeley professor Steve Schladover. Schladover has studied the field for 50 years and believes the technology is not ready yet.
Cars do well under many conditions, but they still make mistakes that need to be corrected, says Schladover.
– And every company has spent many billions of dollars to get to this point.
Fearing more cars
The demanding technological development is the reason why the Berkeley professor does not believe that taxi services will quickly expand to other countries and cities.
– He says that it takes a huge effort to get the cars to work at each new location.
That may be reassuring to Janelle Wong, CEO of the San Francisco Bicycle Alliance, who fears the latest approval in California will be a green light for companies to expand elsewhere.
These cars may be safer, but they lead to more cars on the road, she says.
This concern is shared by visiting Harvard researcher David Zipper, who studies the interaction between transportation policy, technology and society.
In an article in Atlantic Ocean Ultimately, he believes, robo-taxi will lead to more cars being driven and greater demand for new roads, because the bottom line is that driving should be easier and cheaper. Nor does he buy into the argument for better security. He considers the vehicles more like taxis in a new guise.
“I don’t understand why the authorities in California think it’s important to allow these ships on the roads in San Francisco unhindered,” Zipper tells E24.
I understand that companies are in a hurry because they want to give their investors a return, but from a general point of view there is no reason to rush.
After the fire truck accident in San Francisco, Cruise has already been ordered to halve its fleet of about 300 cars, and local authorities are now trying to revoke state approval.
Fire Chief Janine Nicholson believes much can be resolved with regular meetings with companies, but neither Cruz nor Waymo answered E24’s question if they were willing to do so. Nor if they believe the technology is ready for widespread use.
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We use the Waymo credit for one last trip back to one of the busier areas of town. At the last traffic light, it gets chaotic. The taxi stays in place until the light turns red, then flies over it.
And soon after, it rolls elegantly to the side and lets you know the ride is over.
Then he continues down the street, preparing for his next trip.
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