- Written by James Clayton
- BBC North America technology correspondent
My heart races a little as the taxi approaches. It’s a strange sight, I thought I’d never see it in my life.
The cab does not have a driver. He stops in front of me and invites me to open his door with my phone – before leading me into the night.
But just as I was about to enter, a passerby approached.
He told me, “They are not safe.” He says he saw someone about to be run over by a motortaxi – and warns me to be careful.
He represents a San Francisco faction that doesn’t like robo-taxi – and believes the city has approved a dangerous experiment that puts people’s lives at risk.
Some have gone further than that. Over the summer, a group of campaigners began disabling cars by putting cones on their hoods.
Safe Street Rebel describes what she does as “deceptive” and some of her videos have gone viral. But city officials are committed to letting them operate on their streets — for now.
On August 10, 2023, the California Commission on Public Utilities (CPUC) voted to allow two taxi companies – Waymo and Cruise – to operate 24-hour service. Previously, they were only allowed to operate paid flights at night.
But before that vote, officials listened to six hours of public comment, which served as a conveyor belt of people voicing their hopes and fears.
There were drivers from Uber and Lyft who were worried that robot taxis would deprive them of their livelihoods: “If you allow self-driving taxis to expand, it will take families out of jobs. I am a single mother,” says Rosen, an Uber driver. . City.
Garbage truck representatives said the cars often broke down and clogged their vehicles. The San Francisco Fire Service criticized the cars for the same reason, claiming they had been fouled 55 times this year.
Others believe the technology simply has not yet been proven safe. “I’m interested in the technology, but it’s not ready guys,” said Matthew Souter, a San Francisco taxi driver. “This is a danger to the citizens of San Francisco.”
Others were people with physical disabilities who wondered how they would be able to get into taxis without the assistance of a driver. Adoption of the robots “will leave disabled San Francisco residents out in the cold,” said Mara Math, a member of the Umbrella Transportation Coordinating Council.
But then there were her supporters. “I see how these cars behave, and I trust them a lot more than angry drivers or distracted drivers,” said George Janko, a San Francisco orthopedic surgeon and cyclist. He added that he has worked on several serious injuries sustained by human drivers, and that robot taxis appear to be much safer.
Jessie Wolinski, who is blind, said she was harassed by Uber and Lyft drivers. Waymo cars “provided me with a level of safety I hadn’t experienced before”.
There was also a mother who said taxi drivers turned her away when they saw her child’s car seats – something a self-driving car would never do.
I’ve seen both sides of the argument. I have used the Cruze motorized several times over the past few months, with no incidents. Meanwhile, I was also in a motorized taxi that broke down in the middle of the street.
Unsure of how to handle the tight right turn, she simply pulled over. The cars behind me whistled and finally climbed onto the sidewalk to go around us. I can understand their frustration.
Just eight days after a vote to allow companies to expand the use of robot taxis, a cruise taxi was involved in an accident with a fire engine.
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The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles asked Cruz to cut the number of vehicles on the roads in half—something she agreed to.
The city’s attorney, David Chew, asked the CPUC to halt its decision: “San Francisco will suffer serious harm from this unrestrained expansion.”
However, Cruz and Waymo insist that their bots are safe.
Waymo told the BBC the company has covered more than two million miles of fully autonomous driving. She says she has not had a single accident with a pedestrian or a cyclist.
Waymo also says that every vehicle-to-vehicle collision it’s been involved in happens when other drivers are breaking the rules or driving dangerously.
Cruz told the BBC she had covered three million miles without a driver and had a strong safety record.
Despite this, many San Franciscans remain unconvinced. In a quiet city park, I meet a safe street rebel gang leader – who wishes to remain anonymous.
They told me that hoaxing might be one of the first physical protests against AI, and that this kind of human action would become more and more common.
They are frustrated that people’s concerns about San Francisco’s robo-taxi are not being heard: “We’re definitely not vigilantes. We’re just a self-organizing community to make itself heard.”
I asked them if they represented the twenty-first-century equivalent of digitalism—a group that staunchly opposed the technological changes of the early nineteenth century.
“Yes, I think there are similarities here. I think the Luddites have been treated unfairly throughout history.”
San Francisco is in a strange place. It wants to be at the forefront of innovation. But the city officials did not take many residents with them.
It now looks as if the city has reached a crossroads. The car companies themselves insist that the vehicles are safe. But if they can’t convince the San Franciscans of it, they’ll have a fight to stay on the city’s streets.
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