You may already think there are too many self-driving robocars on the streets of SF, roaming creepily around with names like "Mocha" and "Juice." But the cars are actually pretty restricted in what they can do and where they can go right now. That may soon change.
Both GM-owned Cruise and Alphabet-owned Waymo are inching closer to getting broader approval in California to operate as self-driving taxi services, stepping into the ride-hailing market that has been dominated by Uber — and to a lesser extent Lyft — for the last decade. As the Associated Press reports this week, San Francisco could by the end of the year become the first major city where self-driving taxis are fully hail-able, even moreso than they are now, if the companies get their way.
Standing in the way of Cruise and Waymo are state regulators, as well as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), which in January asked the state to halt any expansion of permits for the self-driving cars. That came in the wake of multiple incidents, some of them well documented and others not as much, of the cars eerily clustering on busy streets and coming to a stop, and making abrupt stops generally.
The SFCTA said there were "92 unique incidents reported to the City between May 29, and December 31, 2022," which included one instance where "A Cruise vehicle entered a bus lane, stopped next to a Muni bus near the intersection of O’Farrell and Franklin streets and blocked traffic for 21 minutes."
There was also a documented incident in which a driverless Cruise vehicle bumbled into an active firefighting scene and drove over a firehose.
The AP also describes first-hand experiences from its reporters in February that make the robocars sound not-ready for free-for-all status. In one instance, two reporters exited a Waymo vehicle in the street, but the car just sat there blocking traffic for a while afterwards because one of the doors wasn't fully closed. In another incident, a reporter was taken well past their destination, and had to call a dispatch operator to get their rogue taxi to stop.
"We are just very wary," says Tilly Chang, executive director of the SFCTA, speaking to the AP. "We want to be supporters and help facilitate [driverless rides], but we have to make sure it's safe."
As of now, Waymo cars — which are all white Jaguar iPaces rigged with Lidar technology — are able to offer rides for free throughout the city, but only to those who have signed up for and been granted access to the Waymo One app. Cruise, meanwhile, is charging for rides in its app, but can only operate after 10 p.m. in a zone that includes the avenues, part of the Western Addition, Pacific Heights, and Nob Hill. (If you've seen driverless Cruise vehicles outside this zone in daylight hours, they are just in testing mode.)
Both companies are pushing to expand passenger service in SF later this year, and it remains to be seen if they'll be allowed.
"We still have work to do, but it's improving at a pretty rapid rate," says Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt, speaking to the AP. Vogt adds, "As it gets fine-tuned, it will get really elegant over time, but also the safety continues to improve."
"Elegant" probably would not describe incidents like this one, where a Cruise car named Souffle just rolled into the back of a Muni bus and "tapped" it the other week. But sure, the robots must be "improving," and maybe their rides will be a few bucks cheaper than Ubers?