In some San Francisco neighborhoods, at certain hours of the night, it seems as if one in 10 cars on the road has no driver behind the wheel.
These are not experimental test vehicles, and this is not a drill. Many of San Francisco’s ghostly driverless cars are commercial robotaxis, directly competing with taxis, Uber and Lyft, and public transit. They are a real, albeit still marginal, part of the city’s transportation system. And the companies that operate them, Cruise and Waymo, appear poised to continue expanding their services in San Francisco, Austin, Phoenix, and perhaps even Los Angeles in the coming months.
I spent the past year covering robotaxis for the San Francisco Examiner and have taken nearly a dozen rides in Cruise driverless cars over the past few months. During my reporting, I’ve been struck by the lack of urgency in the public discourse about robotaxis. I’ve come to believe that most people, including many powerful decision makers, are not aware of how quickly this industry is advancing, or how severe the near-term labor and transportation impacts could be.
Hugely important decisions about robotaxis are being made in relative obscurity by appointed agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission. Legal frameworks remain woefully inadequate: in the Golden State, cities have no regulatory authority over the robotaxis that ply their streets, and police legally cannot cite them for moving violations.
It’s high time for the public and its elected representatives to play a more active role in shaping the future of this new technology. Like it or not, robotaxis are here. Now comes the difficult work of deciding what to do about them.
After years of false promises, it’s now widely acknowledged that the dream of owning your very own sleep/gaming/makeup mobility pod remains years, if not decades, away. Tesla’s misleadingly named Autopilot system, the closest thing to autonomous driving in a mass-market car, is under investigation by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Justice Department.
Unfortunately, there is no standard, government-approved framework for evaluating the safety of autonomous vehicles.
Media coverage of robotaxis has been rightfully skeptical. Journalists (myself included) have highlighted strange robo-behavior, concerning software failures, and Cruise and Waymo’s lack of transparency about their data. Cruise’s driverless vehicles, in particular, have shown an alarming tendency to inexplicably stop in the middle of the road, blocking traffic for extended periods of time. San Francisco officials have documented at least 92 such incidents in just six months, including three that disrupted emergency responders.
These critical stories, though important, obscure the general trend, which has been moving steadily in the robotaxi industry’s favor. Over the past few years, Cruise and Waymo have cleared several major regulatory hurdles, expanded into new markets, and racked up over a million relatively uneventful, truly driverless miles each in major American cities.
Robotaxis are operationally quite different from personally owned autonomous vehicles, and they are in a much better position for commercial deployment. They can be unleashed within a strictly limited area where they’re well trained; their use can be closely monitored by the company that designed them; and they can immediately be pulled off the road in bad weather or if there’s another issue.
Unfortunately, there is no standard, government-approved framework for evaluating the safety of autonomous vehicles. In a paper on its first million “rider-only” miles, Waymo had two police-reportable crashes (with no injuries) and 18 minor contact events, about half of which involved a human driver hitting a stationary Waymo. The company cautions against direct comparisons with human drivers because there are rarely analogous data sets. Cruise, on the other hand, claims that its robotaxis experienced 53% fewer collisions than the typical human ride-hail driver in San Francisco in their first million driverless miles, and 73% fewer collisions with a meaningful risk of injury.
While not perfect, my most recent Cruise ride, in April, was sufficiently close to the experience of riding with a responsible human driver that I momentarily forgot I was in a robotaxi. The mere fact that these vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws and the speed limit automatically makes them feel like safer drivers than a large percentage of humans on the road.
It remains to be seen whether robotaxis are ready for deployment on a significant scale, or what the metric for determining readiness would even be.But barring a significant shift in momentum, like an economic shock, a horrific tragedy, or a dramatic political pivot, robotaxis are positioned to continue their roll. This is enough to warrant a broader discussion of how they will change cities and society.
Cruise and Waymo are close to being authorized to provide all-day commercial robotaxi service throughout virtually all of San Francisco. That could immediately have a considerable economic impact on the city’s taxi and ride-hail drivers. The same goes for every other city where Cruise and Waymo set up shop. The prospect of automating professional drivers out of existence is not theoretical anymore. It’s a very real possibility in the near future.
Robotaxis also have huge immediate-term implications for transportation policy. This technology could make automotive transportation so cheap and easy that people decide to make more trips by car, increasing congestion and undermining public transportation. Traffic could be made even worse, San Francisco officials fear, by the many robotaxis double-parking as they await passengers, lacking the situational awareness of where and for how long it’s appropriate to stop.
The emergence of robotaxis adds urgency to fraught questions in labor and transportation policy that will need to be addressed sooner or later. Should workers be protected from displacement, or be somehow compensated if they are displaced? Should cars have free rein in the most congested, transit-accessible parts of cities? Should electric vehicles continue to be exempt from the gas taxes that pay for road maintenance?
As technology accelerates, public policy should accelerate along with it. But in order to keep up, the public needs to have a clear-eyed view of just how quickly the future could arrive.
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