As I approach the curb, my heart races in anticipation. A sight I never thought possible in my lifetime unfolds before me – an unmanned cab. With a gentle stop, it beckons me to unlock its door using my smartphone, ready to whisk me away into the night.
Just as I’m about to step inside, a passerby intervenes.
“They’re not safe,” he cautions, recounting a near miss he witnessed involving a robotaxi. His warning echoes the sentiments of a San Francisco faction opposed to these driverless vehicles, convinced that the city is venturing into a perilous experiment that endangers lives.
Some dissenters have even taken direct action. During the summer, a campaign group dubbed Safe Street Rebel has emerged, using an unconventional method they call “coning” to disable the vehicles. Videos of their exploits have gone viral, yet city authorities stand firm in allowing robotaxis on their streets, for now.
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On August 10, 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) made a significant decision that will shape the future of transportation in San Francisco. By granting Waymo and Cruise, two prominent cab companies, permission to operate 24/7, the commission escalated a debate that has captured the city’s attention.
Leading up to the vote, six hours of public comments were heard, reflecting a spectrum of opinions, concerns, and hopes. Among the voices were Uber and Lyft drivers fearing job loss, residents perturbed by obstructed streets due to breakdowns, and physically disabled individuals worried about accessibility in driverless cabs.
The spectrum of perspectives continues to fuel the discourse around robotaxis. Some, like cab driver Matthew Sutter, express concern about the technology’s maturity, emphasizing potential risks to citizens. Conversely, orthopedic surgeon George Janku and cyclist extols the reliability of the autonomous cars, highlighting their superior behavior on roads compared to human drivers.
Jessie Wolinsky, who is blind, shares her relief from the safety and respect she’s experienced with Waymo vehicles. Meanwhile, a mother praises driverless cars for their inclusivity, recounting how traditional taxis rejected her due to child car seats.
Having personally tested Cruise’s robotaxis, I’ve observed both sides of the debate. While several rides were incident-free, I’ve also witnessed a breakdown that stalled traffic. A tight turn left the vehicle motionless, prompting annoyed honks from surrounding cars.
In a rather unfortunate twist, just eight days after the CPUC’s vote, a Cruise taxi collided with a fire engine, sparking further doubts about safety. Subsequently, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles called for a reduction in robotaxi numbers on the roads, a measure Cruise accepted.
As the city grapples with this technological leap, a battle of opinions ensues. San Francisco Attorney David Chiu urges the CPUC to reconsider its decision, predicting dire consequences for the city. However, both Cruise and Waymo stand by their autonomous vehicles, with impressive records of miles driven and safety maintained.
While these companies tout their achievements, a group known as Safe Street Rebel persists in its protests, underscoring growing concerns about AI and its implications. The movement’s spokesperson likens their stance to that of the historical Luddites, advocating for greater consideration of the potential consequences.
San Francisco finds itself in a unique juncture, eager to lead innovation while navigating the challenges posed by emerging technologies. Despite the resolute assurances from car companies, convincing the diverse citizens of San Francisco remains an uphill battle. The city’s path forward hangs in the balance as it seeks to harmonize the promise of progress with the needs and worries of its residents.