Nov 23, 2022 - Technology

Hailing a taxi with no one behind the wheel

Side by side images of the author and her view from the back seat of a Cruise robotaxi

Joann took an evening ride in a Cruise robotaxi in San Francisco. Photos by Holly Bogin (left) and Joann Muller (right)

I took a ride in a Cruise driverless taxi last week in San Francisco and, for the first time, I thought, "This might really happen!"

Why it matters: Self-driving cars have been promised for years, but the technology is hard, regulations are spotty, and the business case has yet to be proven.

  • Lately, enthusiasm for the whole sector has been flagging following the sudden demise of Ford- and Volkswagen-backed Argo AI.
  • And yet, here I was, in the back seat of a robotaxi, being chauffeured around San Francisco by a ghost.

Details: I met my friend Holly for dinner and invited her to come along as I tried out Cruise's robotaxi.

  • Around 9 p.m., I used my iPhone to summon a ride to Holly's son's house across town using the Cruise app (it's not yet available on Android), and was advised that demand was high so they'd notify me when a car was available.
  • Only a minute or two later, the app said a car named "Apricot" was on the way.

We waited in front of the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown, but the car blew right past us, stopping about 3o feet ahead, apparently the designated pickup spot.

  • We approached the car, used the app to unlock the doors, then climbed in to the back seat.
  • A disembodied voice reminded us to buckle up, and then I pushed the "start ride" button on the tablet in front of me.

How it worked: Apricot navigated the city with confidence, handling unexpected snags — such as a pedestrian in dark clothes emerging from behind an idling bus — with ease.

  • Another time, Apricot waited cautiously while two people got into an Uber that was blocking traffic. The couple laughed and pointed at the driverless car, but it wasn't clear what they were going to do next. I rolled down the window and waved, but was scolded by Apricot to keep my hands and arms inside the car at all times.
  • We appreciated Apricot's gentle handling of speed bumps on some of the city's hilliest streets.
  • Yet the car wasn't overly cautious, either. Apricot swung wide to pass a car that was slowing to turn right. Holly compared it to the way an impatient driver would behave.

We encountered one glitch, but it was our fault: Midway through the ride, we changed our mind about our destination and decided to try to extend the ride by adding more stops. But we weren't fast enough, so the ride ended — and we had to get out, and Apricot drove away.

  • We laughed at our digital ineptitude, but then tried summoning another robotaxi.
  • A minute later, our old friend Apricot drove around the corner to pick us up again.

Flashback: It wasn't my first time in a car with no one behind the wheel. Just before the pandemic, in February 2020, I took a ride in a Waymo driverless minivan in suburban Phoenix.

  • It was awe-inspiring back then, but I was also aware of the limitations of my experience: I was accompanied by a Waymo representative and the well-practiced route was fairly simple, traffic was light and weather conditions were ideal.

It took more than two years for the next driverless ride service in the U.S. to begin operations. Cruise's robotaxis opened to the public in June. And San Francisco is arguably a more challenging environment with its steep hills and narrow, congested streets. Driving there is difficult for anyone.

What's next: Until now, Cruise has been limited to nighttime fares in San Francisco, when traffic is light, but it just got permission to extend the service to daylight hours as well.

The bottom line: I felt safe and comfortable during my ride, and I can't wait to try it again when it's light outside.

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