Our Experience With the Divisive Robotaxis of San Fran

There’s a subtle increase in my heartbeat as the autonomous cab draws near. It’s an unusual spectacle, one I never thought I’d witness in my lifetime.

The cab lacks a human driver. It halts before me, prompting me to unlock its door via my phone. In an instant, it whisks me away into the night.

However, just as I’m about to step inside, a passerby approaches.

“They’re not safe,” he cautions. He recounts witnessing a near miss involving a robotaxi, urging me to exercise caution.

He represents a faction in San Francisco that holds reservations about robotaxis. They believe the city has embarked on a perilous experiment that jeopardizes lives.

Some have gone further, resorting to action. During the summer, a grassroots movement emerged, obstructing the cars by placing cones on their hoods.

Identified as Safe Street Rebel, this group engages in what they term “coning,” with some of their videos gaining viral traction. However, city authorities are presently committed to permitting their operation on the roads.

The view from a passenger seat in a Cruise robotaxi Image caption, A perspective from within a Cruise robotaxi On August 10, 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) sanctioned two cab firms—Waymo and Cruise—to offer a 24/7 service. Prior to this decision, they were restricted to operating paid rides solely during the night.

Nonetheless, preceding the verdict, officials dedicated six hours to public commentary—an assembly of individuals voicing their expectations and apprehensions.

Uber and Lyft drivers expressed concerns over robotaxis potentially depriving them of livelihoods. “Expanding self-driving taxis will cost families their jobs. I’m a single mother,” stated Rosine, an Uber driver in the city.

Representatives from waste disposal trucks highlighted instances of the cars breaking down and obstructing their vehicles. San Francisco’s fire service also criticized the cars for similar reasons, asserting 55 obstructions this year alone.

Certain individuals are skeptical about the technology’s safety. San Francisco cab driver Matthew Sutter remarked, “I’m all for technology, but it’s not ready, guys… this endangers the people of San Francisco.”

Others represented the physically disabled population, pondering how they would access cabs without driver assistance. Mara Math, a member of the Paratransit Coordinating Council, argued that embracing robotaxis would “leave disabled San Franciscans out in the cold.”

However, supporters also emerged. Orthopedic surgeon and avid cyclist George Janku stated, “I observe the behavior of these cars, and I trust them more than agitated or distracted drivers.” He drew from his experience with serious injuries involving human drivers, asserting that robotaxis seem safer.

Jessie Wolinsky, who is visually impaired, recounted harassment by Uber and Lyft drivers. She found a greater sense of security with Waymo cars.

A mother shared her experience of taxi drivers rejecting her due to her children’s car seats, a situation driverless cars would never create.

I’ve witnessed both sides of the debate. I’ve used Cruise’s robotaxis multiple times in recent months without incident. Concurrently, I’ve been in a robotaxi that broke down in the middle of the road.

Unsure about executing a sharp right turn, it halted abruptly. Horns blared from the cars behind, eventually forcing them to mount the curb to pass us. I could understand their frustration.

Merely eight days following the vote to expand robotaxi use, a Cruise taxi collided with a fire engine.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles instructed Cruise to reduce the number of vehicles on the road—a directive the company accepted.

City Attorney David Chiu implored CPUC to reconsider its decision, warning, “San Francisco will suffer significant consequences from this unrestricted expansion.”

Yet Cruise and Waymo remain adamant about the safety of their robotaxis.

Waymo informed us that they’ve logged over two million miles of fully autonomous driving, without a single pedestrian or cyclist accident.

They also argued that every vehicle-to-vehicle collision they’ve encountered was due to other drivers violating rules or driving recklessly.

Despite this, many San Franciscans remain unconvinced. In a serene city park, I met with an anonymous leader of Safe Street Rebel.

They lamented the lack of attention paid to citizens’ concerns about robotaxis: “We’re not vigilantes. We’re a community organizing ourselves to be heard.”

When asked if they resembled 21st-century Luddites, vehemently opposed to technological change in the early 19th century, they replied, “Yes, I see parallels here. And I think history has been unfair to the Luddites.”

San Francisco finds itself in a peculiar position, aspiring to be a vanguard of innovation. Nevertheless, city officials have not carried the majority of residents with them.

It appears the city stands at a crossroads. While car companies assert their vehicles’ safety, they may face an uphill battle to remain on the streets if they fail to persuade San Franciscans.

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