Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
A handful of cities in the US have become the testing bed for driverless taxis. The problem is not the technology, it is the people!
Travis Kalanick, the founder and then CEO of Uber, during one of the press conferences, said “Most of these drivers won’t even be needed in the next few years as driverless cars take over the roads.” He had to release a statement thereafter walking back the statement since his business depended on the very people he had rubbished.
Uber was one of the first movers in the driverless car tech along with Google. They also got embroiled in several court cases over employees having stolen intellectual property from Google.
Google has been working on driverless cars since 2009 as a part of its stable of moonshot projects. The Driverless Car project has since graduated into a whole company called Waymo.
In the meantime, the pursuit of profitability resulted in the firing of Travis as the CEO of Uber. Uber dumped the self-drive business because it was a white elephant.
After several skirmishes with various city governments and the death of a small number of pedestrians and cyclists, things have taken a turn.
Waymo announced a “tour across Los Angeles” that allows curious residents the opportunity to ride in fully autonomous vehicles as the Alphabet-owned company begins to lay the groundwork for the launch of a commercial robotaxi service.
Waymo says it will make six multi-week “tour stops” in LA neighbourhoods where people can hail a self-driving car without anyone in the front seat. Interested Angelenos can snag early access tickets at several pop-up events throughout the city or sign up for a waitlist. Once they receive a ticket, riders can use Waymo’s fully driverless vehicles for free within the service area for one week during the allotted time.
The tour is as follows: Santa Monica and Venice Beach October 11th–November 18th; Century City November 20th–December 17th; West Hollywood December 17th–January 7th; Mid City January 8th–23rd; Koreatown January 24th–February 8th; and Downtown LA February 9th–March 3rd.
Driverless cars are available for individuals to hail and take a ride on. This is especially true in California.
“Hello, Tripp,” a disembodied woman’s voice said through the speakers of a driverless taxi that was about to pick up a fare near the colorful Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.
“This experience may feel futuristic,” the voice said. “Please don’t touch the steering wheel or pedals during the ride. For any questions, you can find information in the Waymo app, like how we keep our cars safe or clean.”
The New York Times dispatched three reporters across the city to test Waymo’s robot taxis. I started in Alamo Square, home to the famous Painted Ladies houses.
The Waymo experience can be confusing for a first timer. When the car pulled up to the curb beside the Painted Ladies, I reached for the door handle. But the handles were flush against the door and wouldn’t open. I needed to press an “unlock” button on the app. When I did, the handles shot out from the door and I was able to climb inside.
My ride was so smooth, the novelty began to wear off, turning a trip to the future into just another journey across town. The car was precise and deliberate, albeit without the flexibility or interactions you would have with a human driver. It paused for pedestrians and yielded to emergency vehicles.
Source: New York Times
But the cars do not seem to be consistent, they seem to have personalities of their own. One of the reporters in the trial cited above had a car that was rather aggressive. But many reporters have reported rather uneventful journeys you can read one more such account here.
Waymo rides are now available in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix and its competitor Cruise which is owned by GM is now available in San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix.
But how did this really come about? How did this technology cross the threshold from technological fascination to prime-time?
In the lead-up to California regulators voting earlier this month to allow driverless taxis to operate with near impunity in San Francisco, the companies behind the autonomous vehicles, Cruise and Waymo, spent nearly $2 million on lobbying in the state, including wining and dining nearly three dozen state officials.
What’s more, one of the three “yes” votes on the matter came from Cruise’s former top lawyer, who was appointed to the four-member commission by California governor Gavin Newsom in 2021.
Tech companies have unlimited coffers of cash and spending a few million dollars to influence lawmakers is a small matter.
Data suggests, that the cars are safe to be on the road.
But we actually do know a fair amount about the safety of driverless taxis. Waymo and Cruise have driven a combined total of 8 million driverless miles (a Waymo spokeswoman told me the company has completed more than 4 million driverless miles, and Cruise has said the same). That includes more than 4 million in San Francisco since the start of 2023. And because California law requires self-driving companies to report every significant crash, we know a lot about how they’ve performed.
For this story, I read through every crash report Waymo and Cruise filed in California this year, as well as reports each company filed about the performance of their driverless vehicles (with no safety drivers) prior to 2023. In total, the two companies reported 102 crashes involving driverless vehicles. That may sound like a lot, but they happened over roughly 6 million miles of driving. That works out to one crash for every 60,000 miles, which is about five years of driving for a typical human motorist.
These were overwhelmingly low-speed collisions that did not pose a serious safety risk. A large majority appeared to be the fault of the other driver. This was particularly true for Waymo, whose biggest driving errors included side-swiping an abandoned shopping cart and clipping a parked car’s bumper while pulling over to the curb.
Source: Ars Technica
So like that self-driving technology seems to have crossed over the chasm from experimental rides to mainstream at least in some cities. Also, as these rides are completed with a decent safety record more and more cities and countries will open up to the idea of having self-driving cars.
The problem does not seem to be the technology but the humans in the car…
For some, that’s a welcome invitation to test the autonomous vehicles’ limits. Megan, a woman in her 20s, took her first robotaxi ride on a recent late-night excursion. It was also her first time having sex in a driverless vehicle. The Standard is not providing exact dates of the riders’ debauchery to protect their privacy but has verified the rides took place through documentation. Names have been changed because of the riders’ privacy concerns.
“We got in and just got straight to it, making out,” said Megan, who got into the Cruise wearing nothing but a robe. “One thing led to another, and he made sure that I was taken care of, if you will. … I was like, ‘I have no underwear on, and I am ready to go in this kimono.’ And I was using his slippers that were like five sizes too big.”
Her accomplice? A man in his 30s, whom we’ll call Alex. By his estimates, Alex has performed at least six separate sex acts in robotaxis, ranging from impromptu make-out sessions to “full-on [sex], no boundaries activities” a total of three times in a Cruise car.
“I mean, there's no one to tell you, ‘You can't do that,’” he said
Source: The San Francisco Standard
So, while lobbying and the lust for money might have brought these cars onto the roads. How these companies plan to ensure that cars become and remain the preferred mode of transport is something we still need to see.
If they succeed it can have huge repercussions on how and where we live. Huge amounts of land that are locked up as parking today in cities would no longer be needed. You could even live further away from cities since it would take a standard amount of time to get to a plays.
These are early days, but this can also decimate the entire automobile industry.