Robotaxis: A Futuristic Ride Through San Francisco

by Michael Nguyen
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Two ride-hailing services in San Francisco are applying for permission to let people take their cars around at any time of the day, even though there won’t be a driver in them.

If both Cruise (a company owned by General Motors) and Waymo (which grew from Google) meet their deadlines before the end of this year, San Francisco will become the first American city to have two driverless services competing with Uber, Lyft, and regular taxis. All these providers usually need drivers to control their vehicles.

Cruise and Waymo both need to be careful because there is a chance that people will complain about their cars making unexpected stops that could block traffic and put other travelers in danger.

Since June, Cruise has been charging people for taking rides in self-driving cars during the night in less crowded areas of San Francisco. Waymo is offering free rides in a wider range across the city and is also waiting to get permission to start charging passengers for trips taken with robots that Google started making 14 years ago.

People are trying to launch driverless cars in San Francisco, but their plan is even bigger. They want these driverless cars to be all over California, where already 35 million people have cars that they drive themselves.

Cruise recently asked for approval to test its robot cars in California at a speed of up to 55 mph, which is 25 mph higher than the speed limit on San Francisco’s roads. Waymo is already testing its self-driving cars in Los Angeles – the second biggest city in America.

Cruise has recently been testing its robotaxi service in Texas and Phoenix. Waymo’s car rides that don’t require a driver have also been going on in Arizona since 2020. But the roads here are much less crowded and complicated than those in San Francisco, California.

Kyle Vogt, the CEO of Cruise Company said that their work is getting better and faster. He also agreed that safety will continue to improve as they make fine adjustments.

Saswat Panigrahi from Waymo believes that all the experience gained from driving without a driver in Phoenix can be very useful in bigger cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Panigrahi said that it’s much clearer now because they tested the service with real people using it without anyone controlling it.”

Recently, Cruise and Waymo both shared that their driverless cars have travelled over 1 million miles without any major problems. However, in San Francisco, the robotaxis have been causing some issues like traffic jams and blocking emergency vehicles from reaching places where help is needed urgently.

“We expect cars to act in certain ways, but it’s the unexpected things that can cause trouble,” said Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Center at the University of Oregon. “It might cause chaos or even harm someone if the cars suddenly stopped in the middle of a road.”

Lots of tech companies and carmakers have invested over $100 billion in trying to build robots to drive cars. The goal is to make money, since robot drivers are safer and cheaper than human ones. Even though robotic taxis could be cheaper, people might be willing to pay more to not have a stranger controlling the car.

Investments made so far have not been all that successful. In 2017, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk said they’d be running ‘robotaxis’ by the end of 2020 – but they are nowhere near achieving this goal yet.

In January, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority sent a letter to California regulators warning about potential problems created by robotaxis. They reported that these robots had made unexpected stops in the street 92 times until December 31st and 3 of these stops blocked public transportation for 9-18 minutes.

Over the past year, cars that drive themselves – known as “Robotaxis” – have been getting in the way of firefighters trying to put out fires or going into places where fighting fires is happening. This has made the people responsible for these Robotaxis to ask the people who make rules about them to not let Robotaxis roam around San Francisco all day long until they understand why and how often these robot cars stop suddenly in traffic. Federal investigators have also been deciding if they should look more into why Robotaxis keep stopping so abruptly since late last year.

Tilly Chang, the boss of San Francisco’s transportation agency, said, “We’re being very careful. We want to help driverless cars do their jobs, but we need to make sure it is safe.”

Two reporters from the Associated Press took a ride in a Waymo vehicle, which is an automated taxi, in mid-February. The car had to maneuvre through hilly roads, go through rush hour traffic and stop for pedestrians that suddenly stepped out into crosswalks. The trip was successful and no problems were reported.

Once, the robotaxi stopped in the middle of a street while AP reporters were still in it and caused a line of cars behind it to form. They noticed that one back door was not properly shut. In another incident last September, an AP reporter took a five-mile ride with the robotaxi named “Peaches”, but this car kept passing its destination. To stop it, the reporter had to use a Cruise app to call somebody from a far place so the robotaxi could be stopped—in the middle of the street again.

Vogt said that since then things have improved and two robot taxis, named “Cherry” and “Hollandaise”, took a reporter and their colleague to where they wanted to go. However, Cherry stopped at a bus station which caused some problems when a bus was coming.

General Motors, the company that owns Cruise, really believes that their self-driving cars will be safer and more successful than regular ones. They think they can make $1 billion in just 5 years! That’s way more than they did last year when they made $106 million but lost nearly $2 billion in total.

Ford Motor had a really bad experience in 2017. They spent 1 billion dollars to buy Argo AI, a self-driving car company. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work out and ended up costing them 2.7 billion dollars when they realized they couldn’t sell the technology.

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