A vote to empower autonomous ‘robotaxis’ from Cruise and Waymo has divided San Francisco

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On Wednesday, 9 August, I had the opportunity to test ride an autonomous taxi called Saxophone. Cruise, the company behind these driverless taxis, had started operating them on-demand in June 2022. They are a common sight in my neighborhood in San Francisco. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently voted 3-1 to allow Cruise and Waymo to run paid rides without a safety driver in the cabin, making these taxis even more prevalent on the streets of San Francisco.

I have mixed feelings about autonomous vehicles. I have had encounters with Cruise AVs while riding my bike, and they have behaved differently than human drivers. I’ve also witnessed instances where a homeless man approached a driverless taxi to ask for money, only to find no one inside. These incidents highlight the inequality in San Francisco. However, I wanted to put aside the public debate and focus on the experience of riding in one of these taxis.

For a 0.8 mile ride to the local grocery store, I was charged $8.26, roughly a dollar per minute of driving time. The ride was smooth, but there were moments when the Cruise AV’s movements felt different from those of a human driver. It glided closely past a parked SUV’s bike rack and hesitated slightly during a turn. After it dropped me off, it accelerated with a small stutter. Despite these differences, the ride was safe.

After researching, I discovered that the cost of my roundtrip was similar to that of an Uber. I couldn’t help but think about the strange economics of 2023 San Francisco, where billions of dollars of investment had resulted in a service that offered no financial advantage compared to traditional rideshare apps. It also brought into question the impact on jobs of rideshare drivers and the efficiency of these autonomous taxis compared to other modes of transportation.

The recent vote by the CPUC revealed the division within San Francisco about autonomous vehicles. Many believe that human drivers are unsafe and that there is a need for green mass transit. However, there are concerns about the integration of autonomous vehicles into the community. One commissioner argued that the industry hasn’t provided enough data and has dismissed reports of strange behavior by driverless vehicles around first responders. Protesters gathered outside the commission building, raising concerns about job loss and the dominance of large tech companies.

Advocates pointed out the potential discrimination against disabled individuals, as driverless cars may not be able to provide the same level of assistance as a human driver. Others argued that these vehicles could help overcome the “last mile problem” of public transit and reduce dangerous human errors on the road.

Despite the mixed experiences and opinions, the presence of autonomous taxis in San Francisco represents a significant milestone for the industry. However, there is still work to be done to address concerns and ensure the safe integration of these vehicles into the transit system. The future of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco remains uncertain, as the city balances innovation with the needs and expectations of its residents.

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