Special for Infobae of New York Times.
It was nine o’clock on a cool Tuesday night in San Francisco in September when I hailed a car outside a restaurant a few blocks from Golden Gate Park.
A few minutes later, while I was waiting at a traffic light, a white Mercedes pulled up next to me. Three teenagers sat on the edge of the open windows, their heads poking above the ceiling. One of them pointed to the empty front seat of my car.
“Who’s driving?” he yelled.
“No one,” I replied.
He was in a self-driving vehicle operated by Cruise, a General Motors-backed company that now offers low-cost rides to a limited number of lucky and particularly brave people in San Francisco.
For a decade, several companies have promised that within a few years, self-driving vehicles that can be ordered via an app will hit city streets. Those few years, it seems, are always a few more years. And, as these companies strive to perfect their vehicles, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever turn their job into a viable business, given the sheer cost of building and operating these cars.
Our car that afternoon, a little Chevy Bolt with a load carrier full of sensors, was changing lanes on its own. He waited for pedestrians and their dogs to pass by before speeding through a crosswalk. He would avoid cars parked in the middle of the street with turn signals on.
Remember the iconic screeching tire chase scene from Steve McQueen’s 1960s movie Bullitt? Now, imagine the opposite and you’ll have an idea of how the car cautiously climbed up and down the hills of San Francisco, cautiously negotiating four-stop intersections and dodging double-parked cars.
Still, even for someone like me — a journalist who has spent quite a bit of time with this kind of technology in recent years — touring a big city in a self-driving car was an eye-opening experience.
I don’t mean to say there haven’t been problems. As the car passed the teens a second time, it swerved sharply to the right, perhaps mistaking them for pedestrians. At another intersection, he slammed on the brakes just as the light was turning red and stopped in the middle of a crosswalk, with the front end sticking out of the intersection. A pedestrian yelled at the robotic driver and raised his middle finger. I couldn’t tell if that was more or less satisfying than giving the same sign to a human.
And then, just as we hit some night traffic, the car detected a possible accident and pulled over. It was a false alarm, but the vehicle did not move. My trip is over.
One day, you too could travel in a truly autonomous car. Cruise, which hopes to expand its services to Austin, Texas and Phoenix by the end of the year, is among the companies now developing robotic taxi services in major American cities. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, is preparing a second service in San Francisco. Argo AI, backed by Ford and Volkswagen, is working in Austin and Miami. Hyundai-backed Motional is focused on Las Vegas.
However, the technology is still developing. Waymo has operated a truly autonomous service since late 2019 in suburban Phoenix, where roads are wide and pedestrians few. But there is no place more difficult to navigate than San Francisco, with its steep hills and narrow, congested streets; well, the exception perhaps is Times Square.
Cruise currently services passengers with only about 30 cars, only on certain streets in San Francisco, and only between 10:00 pm and 5:30 am, when traffic is relatively light. Their cars do not exceed 30 miles per hour and go out in heavy rain, fog and snow.
Cars can get “confused”
In the early afternoon, Cruise held a small event for journalists at his headquarters in downtown San Francisco.
Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt offered journalists truly self-driving rides for the first time, as self-driving vehicle tests often have so-called safety drivers, ready to take over if something goes wrong. He warned that the cars could “become confused” in certain situations and that if they did, the company, which oversees the trips from a remote operations center, might have to send technicians to retrieve them. Such incidents are very rare, he said.
The cars are quite functional in most situations that occur on public roads: traffic at the wheel, lane changes, right turns. But other situations are more difficult: an unprotected left turn, reckless pedestrians and, it seems, a small camera tripod sticking out the window.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
awesome and stressful
My trip started at a neighborhood restaurant called Bistro Central Parc. A Cruise employee told me I’d have to download the company’s app to call a car. But I could not. I have an Android phone—yes, my daughters make fun of me—and the app only works on iPhones. So the company gave me a loaner car.
Cruise opened the schedule for taking rides an hour early for reporters. At exactly nine o’clock at night, I took a car for a round trip to Grace Cathedral, on Nob Hill, about 5 kilometers away. Jason Henry, a photographer, would accompany me on the trip, which the app said would take about 21 minutes, or 50 percent longer than a typical Uber with a driver would take. Life is slower when you can’t go faster than 50 kilometers per hour.
When the car arrived minutes later, we climbed into the back seat (passengers can’t ride in the front) and before long, a disembodied voice greeted us. The voice belonged to a tech support specialist asking if we needed help getting the car started (it seems we were taking a long time while Henry was photographing the vehicle inside and out).
We declined the offer, hit a big red button on one of the tablets in front of us, and drove at a legal pace that seemed impossibly slow compared to the average Uber driver. An automated message warned us to keep our hands and arms inside the car at all times.
The trip was at times hair-raising, impressive, unnerving and a little stressful. It was like being in the car with my 16-year-old daughter when she was learning to drive, but more disconcerting because my daughter could at least respond to my moments of panic.
When you’re sitting behind a plexiglass shield like you’d find in an old-fashioned New York cab, the front seat of a Cruiser looks like the front seat of any other car, except there’s no one there. On the back, above the two tablets, there is a button that allows you to call the technical service for help and a speaker through which that disembodied voice can speak to you.
That is all.
The car was an obedient driver. When pedestrians passed through a crosswalk in front of him, he responded with what seemed like confidence, patiently inching forward a bit before speeding up the moment his path opened.
As he approached a construction zone marked with orange cones and a giant yellow arrow, he circled it smoothly, waiting for another car to pass on the right before continuing. She also dodged an illegally parked truck at a steep angle against the curb. And she stopped more than once for pedestrians who seemed about to cross the street, though that often came as a jolt to passengers in the backseat. She also had a habit of stopping in the middle of an empty block for no apparent reason. Maybe she saw something I didn’t see, over and over again.
Then, on the way back to the restaurant, after about 5 miles of travel, we drove west on Geary Boulevard, hoping to turn left onto Van Ness Avenue, a major thoroughfare.
We were interested to see how the car handled at this intersection, one of the busiest corners in the city and one that also happened to have a lot of foot traffic for almost 9:30 pm on a Tuesday. For much of the drive, the vehicle appeared to take side streets rather than main ones, avoiding heavy traffic and unprotected left turns. But as we approached Van Ness, vehicles lined up both in front of us and behind us. Suddenly, the car canceled its turn and pulled to the side of the road.
“A possible collision has been detected,” said the disembodied voice.
Just before the vehicle came to a stop, Henry had lowered the window halfway and had placed his iPhone on the edge of the glass with a small tripod. The idea was to get a better angle of what was happening in front of the car. After the trip, a Cruise spokesman said this move had spooked the vehicle. One of the tripod legs had been left on the outside of the glass.
After our car came to a stop, the disembodied voice asked if we were okay and said the ride would resume for the time being. But he never did. Minutes later, the voice said that we would have to abandon the car. A technician from Cruise would have to come check it out.
Cruise says it’s standard protocol, but he’s already had problems with stalled cars. At the end of June, the company had communication problems with many of the vehicles in its fleet and, gathering at one point like some kind of broken caravan, they clogged traffic in the city center. After my trip, the vehicles continued to cause similar incidents throughout the city.