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The idea of sitting in the back of a driverless car while it speeds along the road is daunting. How do you stop it if something goes wrong? What if the car goes rogue and drives into the Pacific?
Driverless cars demand faith in tech. Luckily, San Francisco is just the city for that. Cruise, General Motors’ self-driving unit, started its fledgling robotaxi service here a few months ago. Interest is high and the waiting list is long. On Tuesday, I bagged a ride.
It turns out that being a passenger in a robot car is unnerving for all of two minutes. Watching a wheel turn with no one there to turn it is undeniably odd. But after seeing the car navigate pedestrians and wait patiently for its turn at junctions I stopped monitoring the road and started taking selfies.
The way the Cruise robotaxi drove was like a confident but cautious friend. I worried more about other road users. San Francisco drivers are notoriously slapdash. Waymo, which also has permission to operate robotaxis in San Francisco, started its autonomous taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix. Wide streets, constant sunshine and lack of pedestrians made it a good testing ground. San Francisco is more unpredictable. Cruise’s experiment has not been accident-free. A robotaxi was recently in a collision. Cruise says the other vehicle was speeding (see what I mean about SF drivers?) while making a turn. Cars were recalled.
My robotaxi and I made it to our destination without a hitch. The novelty was fun. But it was surprisingly easy to stop worrying about the car’s ability to drive itself. It helps that the service operates only at night when roads are quiet and cars cannot travel faster than 30mph. My experience was far better than that of the Bloomberg journalist who took a trip in a Waymo robotaxi in Arizona earlier this year and found his ride stymied by a traffic cone.
An autonomous vehicle revolution feels close at hand. But it is still taking a lot longer than people in the industry hoped. By now, the streets of every city were supposed to be full of self-driving cars. See this 2017 Lex investigation into the future of cars. Tesla boss Elon Musk predicted that a million vehicles with full self-driving software would be on the roads by 2020.
The enormous sums of money required to make fully autonomous cars a reality have felled some contenders. Uber sold its autonomous car unit to Pittsburgh start-up Aurora, though it has kept a 26 per cent stake. Lyft offloaded its self-driving vehicle division, Level 5, to a subsidiary of Toyota. Tesla delayed its plan to roll out more sophisticated autonomous driving software to a select number of drivers. Apple’s electric car project, dubbed the iCar, is nowhere to be seen.
I had no complaints about my Cruise robotaxi trip. Still, outperforming human driver competence is a work in progress. Roads are full of obstacles. Messy repairs, obscure signs and rule-breaking users pose problems. The risk of getting something wrong comes with severe consequences. Uber’s driverless car-testing programme was stopped after the death of a pedestrian in 2018.
Still, the goal of creating cars that prevent accidents is a worthwhile one. Investment continues. GM says it is investing about $2bn a year. Kyle Vogt, co-founder and chief executive of Cruise, talks of scale as the company’s focus. Cruise says that by 2025, revenues should hit $1bn.
Eventually, Cruise envisions $50bn in annual revenues, though this would require an overhaul of car ownership. In reality, change may be more staggered. Instead of roads full of autonomous robotaxis, personal cars will have more automated features. Vehicles will assist drivers, not replace them.
There is a downside to this revolution that is little discussed. Ride-hailing services such as Uber encouraged people who might have walked or caught a bus to take a taxi. Driverless cars may encourage more car trips from non-drivers. Children on the way to school, partygoers on their way home and those without driving licences could all travel alone in cars. Driverless cars could make traffic congestion even worse.
In other west coast news: Elon Musk is using Twitter’s $7.75mn severance payment to whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko as yet another argument to jettison his $44bn deal. An uncrewed Blue Origin rocket burst into flames. The countdown begins for the ethereum network upgrade known as the Merge. You can read Lex’s thoughts about crypto’s grand experiment here.
Enjoy the rest of your week,
Deputy head of Lex
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