As summer unfolds in California, the streets of San Francisco are filled with a mix of nonchalant locals and awe-inspired tourists. The reason? Driverless cars. This long-promised vision of the future has finally arrived, and it has left people divided. On one hand, there are those who have become accustomed to the sight of these autonomous vehicles maneuvering through the city, while on the other hand, there are those who stand in awe, fumbling for their smartphones in an attempt to capture the moment.
A Test of Trust
For Katherine Allen, a 37-year-old lawyer, the arrival of Waymo’s robot cabs on the streets of San Francisco sparked both excitement and nerves. Since the end of 2021, she has been voluntarily testing these autonomous vehicles. Initially, there was always a Waymo employee on board, ready to take control if necessary. However, one night, without warning, the employee disappeared, leaving Katherine alone in the car.
“I was really nervous the first time, but not too nervous that I didn’t want to take it. I was excited too,” Katherine recalls. In the beginning, the experience was overwhelming, but after about 20 minutes, the unfamiliar became familiar. It was as if this surreal experience had somehow become normal. This transition from nervousness to normality is a testament to the adaptability of humans and the potential for widespread acceptance of driverless cars.
The Dual Fleet
In San Francisco, two companies, Waymo and General Motors owned Cruise, operate fleets of driverless vehicles. Earlier this summer, both operators received permission from California regulators to operate 24/7 across the city, with the exception of freeways. This makes San Francisco the first major city to have two fleets of autonomous vehicles fully operating, a significant milestone that these companies hope will pave the way for expansion across the United States.
A Curious Journey
Accompanied by AFP, Isaac, a stay-at-home Dad and San Francisco resident, ordered his first ride on Cruise’s app. The vehicle, named Percussion, arrived promptly but took an unconventional route. Instead of the direct route to a nearby supermarket, the trip took a long, unexplained detour. Isaac observed the car’s steering wheel turning autonomously, describing it as “kind of ghostly.”
Despite the unexpected detour, Isaac was impressed with the car’s driving abilities. “It’s decent at braking. It’s not all psycho about slamming on the brakes and accelerating really quickly,” he noted. As he took a quiz on the screen in front of him, Isaac couldn’t help but disagree with the car’s answer about the best burrito in San Francisco. “It’s a good driver, but I’m not sure it has good taste in burritos.”
Isaac found the experience peaceful and devoid of the usual chatter or random music often heard in traditional taxis. He even admitted that if the driverless car was priced the same as an Uber, he would choose the robotaxi simply because he prefers a solitary experience. This preference for a lack of social interaction is a sentiment echoed by Waymo tester Katherine Allen, who appreciates the cautious nature of autonomous cars but acknowledges that it can be frustrating to human drivers.
While driverless cars offer numerous benefits, they are not without their challenges. One major issue is the integration of autonomous vehicles with human-driven cars on the road. The transition from autonomous to human control and vice versa is not always seamless, leading to difficulties in resuming journeys and the potential for accidents. Additionally, local authorities in San Francisco have asked Cruise to reduce the size of its fleet while investigating recent collisions, including one with a fire truck.
A Divisive Technology
In a city known for its tech enthusiasm, even driverless cars are met with skepticism and controversy. Environmental activists argue that these vehicles perpetuate car dependency, while associations for the disabled argue that they are not adequately adapted to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Trade unions fear potential job losses as well. However, there are also many who see driverless cars as a solution to these very problems.
Driverless cars are undoubtedly causing a stir in San Francisco, but opinions on their future impact remain divided. Waymo claims to have a waiting list of over 100,000 people eager to experience the convenience of autonomous transportation. However, the demand for these vehicles hinges on factors such as price and time. Autonomous cars are often slower, according to Katherine Allen, and this may influence people’s decisions when choosing between a driverless vehicle and a human-driven Uber.
In the end, the rise of driverless cars in San Francisco may indeed be a glimpse into the future of transportation, but it is a future marked by both excitement and concern. As these autonomous vehicles continue to navigate the streets of this tech-savvy city, their impact on society, the economy, and the environment remains to be seen.