Fully autonomous driving services that take passengers from A to B without a driver sound like science fiction, but they are already reality: Since this summer, the US metropolis of San Francisco has allowed driverless taxis to float along in normal traffic – without a safety driver. Two companies currently offer corresponding driving services: GM spin-off Cruise and Google sister Waymo.
In the international classification, they are classified as Level 4 autonomy because, unlike Level 5, which is defined as the supreme discipline, the services are restricted both in terms of location and time: the robotaxis are allowed to drive in the city of San Francisco, but not in the surrounding communities the Bay Area (i.e. not to SFO International Airport), and even then only at night. During the day, downtown is excluded – and with it all the usual tourist areas such as Market Street, Union Square, Chinatown and Pier 39.
As part of a business trip, the author of these lines had the opportunity to take a trip with Cruise at the end of August. Unlike Uber, Lyft or normal taxis, this doesn’t happen spontaneously. You can download the associated app and create an account from both Waymo and Cruise, but you cannot start it straight away: both providers work with an invitation system in order to scale the system.
This is also sorely needed: A college friend who works in Silicon Valley had an activated Cruise account, but free cars – Cruise drives a converted Chevy Bolt EV – were rare. Most of the time the app didn’t show much more than a “we’ll let you know when a car is available.” When the time comes, you have to be quick: the car is offered to everyone; Whoever enters a destination address first and continues typing wins.
Several times we had to wait again after entering the address. The credit card stored in the app reported that the fare had been blocked twice, but because other users were probably slightly faster, they were assigned the car and not us. A possible explanation: Since an accident in mid-August, in which a cruise taxi at an intersection had the green light on but overlooked an ambulance coming from the side and collided with it, the company has only been allowed to operate with half its fleet.
If you want to cruise, you have to be patient.
When we were allocated a car shortly after a long wait, it still didn’t start straight away: We were standing near Pier 39, but the free car had to come to us about 20 minutes from Golden Gate Park – for a ride to Union Square, which only took 16 minutes. While there were no critical situations during the journey, there were some unusual situations such as a senseless lane change (see video).
Cruise preferred larger roads when driving and therefore did not drive directly south, but east along the 101. This preference is also noticeable at the destination: we actually wanted to take a drive back to Pier 39 and even had the same car for that got it again in the app. However, this didn’t just want to drive around the block to pick us up again, but rather do a longer 20-minute loop to the 101 and from there back to Union Square. Given the lateness of the hour – it was now almost midnight – we canceled the return journey with Cruise and instead ordered an Uber with a human driver. (mue)
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