“Hello, Tripp,” said a disembodied woman’s voice over the speakers of a driverless taxi that was about to take a trip near the colorful Victorian houses known as the “Painted Ladies.” [Senhoras Pintadas].
“This experiment may seem futuristic,” said the voice. “Please don’t touch the steering wheel or pedals while commuting. For any queries, you can find information on the Waymo app. For example, how we keep our cars safe and clean.”
For several years, San Francisco’s steep and congested streets have served as a test track for hundreds of driverless cars operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company owned by Alphabet, parent of Google, and Cruise, owned by General Motors.
On Monday, over the objections of San Francisco officials who fear the cars aren’t exactly safe, Waymo vehicles began operating as paid taxis without drivers. For the first time, some people were able to book trips and pay fares in a Waymo driverless car. Cruise already operates a limited paid service in parts of the city.
The New York Times dispatched three reporters across the city to test the robotic taxis. I started at Alamo Square, where the famous “Painted Ladies” houses are located. Yiwen Lu began his tour in Marina Green, along San Francisco’s northern waterfront, and Mike Isaac began his tour near the historic Dolores Mission Basilica.
Our destination: the Beach Chalet restaurant, where San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park meets the Pacific Ocean. Waymo is only offering limited rides into the city center, so we’re trying to duplicate the experience a tourist might have driving around in a driverless taxi.
The approximately eight kilometer rides were two “Driving Miss Daisy” parts and one Nascar part. Two trips carefully avoided the congestion and one appeared to accept it.
Waymo’s robot taxi rides began as tensions grew over driverless cars in San Francisco. City officials and activists are calling on state officials to reverse or delay a plan for Waymo and Cruise to start charging passengers for trips in the city, 24 hours a day.
Last week, a driverless Cruise car collided with a fire truck responding to an emergency. Another Cruise vehicle got stuck in wet concrete. The week before, several Cruise cars had blocked traffic in the North Beach neighborhood. On Friday, state regulators asked Cruise to halve the number of vehicles in operation.
Waymo had fewer newsworthy issues. In May, one of her cars hit and killed a puppy. A few years ago, a driverless Waymo car with a human safety driver operating the steering wheel hit a pedestrian who had to be taken to the hospital. The company has charged fares in the Phoenix area for several years, and now has a fleet sailing about 200 miles through that area, including to and from the airport.
Waymo’s app, Waymo One, looks and works exactly like Uber’s. Passengers enter their destination and get an estimated wait time for the trip. After entering your requests, the company dispatches a vehicle from its fleet of 250 white Jaguars that operates around the city. The cars are incredibly expensive, equipped with high-tech sensors and cameras, and are worth up to $200,000.
We each waited five to ten minutes to make the trip.
The Waymo experience can be confusing for those just starting out. When the car pulled up to the curb in front of the Painted Ladies, I reached for the door latch. But the latches were against the door and wouldn’t open. I had to hit an “unlock” button in the app. When I did, the latches popped out of the door and I was able to get into the car.
My trip was so peaceful that the novelty began to wear off, turning a trip into the future into just another trip around town. The car was precise and purposeful, though without the flexibility or interactions you’d get with a human driver. It made a stop for pedestrians and gave way to emergency vehicles.
Just like my trip, Yiwen’s was totally sleepy. The car was dryly accurate. He never exceeded the speed limit, used his turn signals well before changing lanes, and gave way to pedestrians in lanes that speeding drivers might otherwise overlook.
Mike’s robot taxi was more aggressive, however. He jumped off the starting line with more acceleration than expected. He was baffled by the way the car passed through several congested neighborhoods before heading towards the waterfront.
As my Waymo approached a construction site blocking the right lane, I slowed from 30 mph to 20 mph and turned on the turn signal to enter the left lane. Moments later, the car was stopped when a fire engine approached with flashing lights. Waymo hesitated. A touchscreen displayed a brief explanation: “Awaiting emergency vehicle.” He waited until the truck passed before speeding through the intersection.
The steering wheel turned by itself. I wondered what would happen if I touched the steering wheel, so I held onto it as the Waymo moved from lane to lane. The car ignored me and continued on its way.
Yiwen’s trip began with a complication: an accident, not involving the Waymo, near a car park in Marina Green. Police cars blocked part of the street, so the Waymo quickly changed course. Instead of taking the main street, he turned into a nearby residential street and skirted around the accident.
The cars were all quick to react to pedestrians. Mine waited patiently at intersections and crosswalks as people walked their dogs, drank coffee and rode their bikes towards Golden Gate Park.
But at the top of a hill Mike’s car recognized a man crossing the street at the crosswalk, but kept moving slowly while waiting for him to reach the other side. The pedestrian threw an irritated look at the car – and at Mike.
Cars offer more features than an Uber or a taxi. Touchscreens in the rear seats are equipped with a button for turning on the music. There are a number of playlists to choose from, including jazz, classical, rock and hip-hop.
Mike wanted to listen to a punk band called Armed and tried to find their music on the Waymo app. But to do so, he had to download an app called Google Assistant and request a specific song by speaking into the phone’s microphone. His first attempt brought the wrong band, and the second brought a live version of the song he requested.
Rather than taking the more direct route to the beach along a congested street, my Waymo crossed Golden Gate Park and took a less congested street, but that added a few minutes to the trip. He drove most of the way at 47 km/h – 1.6 km/h below the speed limit – and gave way to other drivers. At one point, he was stopped for a few minutes behind a car waiting to turn left, instead of moving into the right lane to go around that vehicle.
My Waymo pulled into a parking lot six minutes later than originally scheduled. He glided across the parking lot to a small, empty space where the map on the touchscreen showed a circle. As soon as he entered the circle, he stopped.
“You’ve arrived,” said the woman. “Please make sure you are cleared before leaving.”
As I got out of the car, I listened to the meditative electronic music that greeted me at the start of the trip. Mike arrived right after me.
Yiwen’s car was less direct. At the start of your journey, he told you that there would be a two-minute walk to the restaurant from the drop-off point. The car reminded her of this when she arrived and encouraged her to use the app to guide her as she walked to the Beach Chalet.
Waymo rides were affordable, ranging from $18 to $21, about the same as an Uber. It will take years – if not decades – for Waymo to recoup the billions of dollars it has invested in its service. Although there is no driver, each trip is supported by a team from a Waymo site that can be called upon if a car has problems.
But that’s Waymo’s problem. It’s easy for us to forget that no one is behind the wheel of robot taxis. The only reminder comes when you start to thank the driver before getting out of the car. A glance at the empty front seat reminds you that you are alone.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves