The Delights And Wonders Of Riding An Autonomous Robot Taxi — A Waymo — In San Francisco

The topic of the day is what capabilities Artificial Intelligence or AI will unlock in software. Can we automate away the mundane parts of our digital lives? Will entire industries be rocked with great upheaval? Will creatives have a partner to augment their skills? To me, AI in software still feels like the first step into a grand frontier we have yet to fully realize. A more tangible and seemingly achievable goal to me is AI in cars, specifically in driving.

If you live in San Francisco, you've no doubt seen a curious-looking vehicle clad in sensors, lasers, radars, cameras, and all sorts of strange dressings for a car. Usually, these are cars from Cruise, Waymo, or an unknown tech startup. Occasionally, a Tesla makes an appearance.

I'm going to focus on Waymo after spending several hundreds of hours in them. In my use, it’s magnitudes better on navigation, safety, maneuverability, and comfort than Cruise and light-years ahead of a Tesla with Full Self Driving. While all are monumental advancements in their own right, a Tesla with full self-driving doesn't merit serious consideration due to its over-reliance on image recognition and lack of 3D spatial awareness — to me, this is like driving with no depth perception, and you assume a person is farther away just because they're small and not understanding they're a toddler much closer to your car. Cruise, on the other hand, at least as of the time of this writing, succumbs to harsher driving conditions like fog and rain. While Cruise cars have shown improvement at the hardware and software level, Teslas continue to be a novelty with the realities of reduced pedestrian deaths and day-use taxi service being a "just around the corner launch" for years with their proposed utopia casually accomplished by startups well-versed in AI and not gimmicks.

Autonomous Cars Are Good Actually

A dramatic shift in driving, autonomous car or otherwise, is the concept of driver skill improvement. Perhaps with greater compassion for ourselves, we can realize we're not physically built to handle the demanding rigors of driving, and that it's a dangerous sport American driving schools have left us woefully unprepared for. We can improve our skills, but how often, since the advent of the automobile and unyielding adventure, have we been forced to upgrade our skills to handle High-Speed freeway driving, treacherous mountain pass navigation, reduced visibility, congested cities, and fighting against the call of the void?

Our only opportunities to do so are often the trial by fire situations we unexpectedly thrust ourselves into to get to our destination, other drivers and pedestrians be damned if our mistakes lead to a crash, injury, or a fatality. Much of our road infrastructure is built for people who have little disregard for their surrounding environment from highways that bulldozed down neighborhoods to absurd cliff-side roads that should be a tunnel. Our infrastructure demands we do too much with tools that effectively become weapons when misused.

The Driving Experience

If you took a sports car driver in-tune with their vehicle and forced them to follow the rules of driving per California's DMV to the absolute letter erring on the side of pedestrian safety — other cars be damned for the sighs at inconvenience — you'd end up with a Waymo. All of this culminates in a car that goes out of its way to not inconvenience pedestrians and allow them space to navigate against traffic if needed, avoid collisions, and apply evasive maneuvers accounting for surroundings while broadcasting to passengers in real-time its intended course.

Some of the oddities of a trip like why it moves so far out of the way in preparation of a cyclist or pedestrian are it adhering to the mandatory 3 feet minimum of space it must give before safely passing. Speed limits are adhered to as well. As a passenger, it makes me feel great I don't have to calculate this on the fly. For drivers around, it can seem like a Waymo is driving far, far too conservatively.

On construction zones and emergency vehicles, I’ve never had an issue here. I’ve been in Waymos that yielded to ambulances far sooner than other drivers. I’ve driven through labyrinth like construction zones at reduced speed and ease with no issue.

Waymos don't seem to have a preference for which routes to take opting for a seemingly random way. It almost feels like it's flexing that it can take any route no matter how convoluted. Commuting between home and work, in the same day is always some amazing trek through the Mission without much delay. Waymo's don't seem to have a preferred picking up or dropping off point, and in San Francisco, this is always going to be a losing battle. Uber drivers mitigated this with some sense to pull into crosswalks, driveways, or fuel your pickup with anxiety that they’re blocking traffic and you need to move now. Waymos opt for the path of least resistance and will take their time to arrive or depart to make sure you’re in the car safely, the road is clear and no pedestrians are in the way. More times than not, I’ve gotten curious outbursts from people wondering just what a driverless car is doing and how is someone getting inside one. Usually more jubilation and delight with some silent sneers thrown in for good measure.

Enough waxing poetic about its safety features, here's a 2-minute video of a typical Waymo ride on Roosevelt Way going to Cole Valley.

All of this looks like a normal drive save for the last point — how many of us would have driven through a crosswalk seeing a line of traffic to our left and judging the man with the dog to the right should wait a while to cross and us not slow down to accommodate? Waymo seems to excel at inferring the intent of a pedestrian near a walkway and errs on the side of caution, assuming they want to enter the street.

Waymo's mapping of the world around it from streets to cars to people (curiously as pogs or AirTags) sees much farther beyond and around than a typical self-driving car or human. The most comical way I can describe Waymo's vision is this Curb Your Enthusiasm skit of a car-mounted periscope seeing beyond traffic.

Passenger Safety

I talked a bit about surrendering control to an autonomous vehicle feeling odd and slightly anxiety inducing but what pushed me fully over to acceptance is Waymo’s collision avoidance maneuvers. Collision avoidance is something that Tesla rose to fame for and seems to be standard with most autonomous cars.

While driving down Fulton in the far right lane, a van merged onto Fulton and crossed to the far left lane. The only problem: this van would have merged clean into me from the rear right and out of my field of view even as a driver. Waymo detected the action and immediately jerked over to the oncoming traffic lane — knowing it was clear — and swerved back after the van merged into my lane, carrying one as it didn’t realize the collision it could cause thinking “wow that car sure acted funny.” Thinking through that scenario as myself in the drive seat, I would have been hit by the van and likely fishtailed into another car or into the oncoming traffic lane at a stop.

"It's Very Weird This Car Has No Driver..."

And I 100% agree with that! It's anxiety-inducing the same way flying is — you have no control once a plane takes off, but you couldn't be in more capable hands in one of the safest modes of transit though that does little to assuage any fears of turbulence.

However, healthy skepticism and caution are absolutely warranted here! My argument isn't robots are perfect — they're damn near better than any person I've driven with, myself included. 99% of drivers may have no intention to cause harm and just want to get to their destination. We can't minimize the stressors driving places on us — from poorly designed roads to a frustrating lack of humanity in navigating crowds of giant metal boxes — nor our physical limitations in monitoring our field of view. We've deceived ourselves that our absolute limitations are the monolith of capabilities that must be preserved in the advent someone or something much better comes along to topple it down. All of this is a disservice to the proper scrutiny any new technology should receive with the aim of making it, and the world around us, much better.

My personal skepticism continues to be around its handling of windy or seemingly dangerous routes. Each time I've encountered a situation like Twin Peaks, Sea Cliff, or any of San Francisco's seemingly infinite hills, my slight worry washes away only at the end of a trip but not eager to resurface — seeing a Waymo handle more difficult situations unaffected is a welcome relief.

"But I Don't Like The Robots Because Of Reasons!"

"They're a menace! Can you believe they would [insert thing here]!?" I take frustration with these comments because they're shortsighted in nature and often translate to "I'm bitter about any societal, technological, or economic advancement I find problematic! This should not happen!" To which I say I don't care — technology and humanity as a whole will outpace your thinking and continually improve. The argument boils down to "Pedestrian deaths by humans are fine, inconvenience from robots is absolutely unacceptable." There's no way you're going to be convinced by what I write here anyway, and in fact, you may invent new ways to take offense.

You might also say “The Robots aren’t perfect on city streets and shouldn't be allowed because…”

A Cruise Car collided with a Muni Bus! How could it do such a thing!” to which I say, that’s unfortunate and I hope a Software or even Hardware upgrade could prevent this in the future. However, this is far more preferable to the human equivalent of a car crashing into a MUNI bus injuring 6 people.

“Autonomous cars can’t handle active emergencies and inconvenience firefighters!” to which I say that’s unfortunate and I hope a Software or Hardware upgrade could prevent this in the future. However, this seems far more preferable to the last time this happened with a human driver in a MUNU bus entering an emergency and critically injuring a firefighter.

“Robot taxis are slowing down traffic because of cyclists!” to which I say tough luck buddy, this is a far better outcome to the many, many cyclist deaths in San Francisco caused by impaired driving or speeding.

Mile for mile, Waymo has proven its prowess and lack of destruction compared to human drivers.

Areas To Upgrade

Communication To Drivers And Pedestrians

Driving has suspiciously lacked any form of proper communication beyond blinkers indicating which lane you may change. For a high stakes mode of transport, this has always been frustrating. How many times have we muttered ”what the fuck are you doing!?” about a driver —hopefully with the best of intentions — when a simple “Hey, just trying to find parking around here, sorry!” would have negated all tension and made navigation much easier.

This disconnect is even bigger in a driverless car, even more so when you as a passenger can see in vivid detail what your autonomous car is intending to do and where it’s going. Broadcasting this with some sort of message board with common actions would not only help others navigate city streets with a autonomous cars but help evangelize and humanize them a bit more.

Actions such as:

Picking Up And Dropping Off

Waymos seem to show off on their driving routes but picking up and dropping off seem to be more thought through. From my understanding, a Waymo will find an open space meant for a car that is not a crosswalk or similar pedestrian crossing and pull in enough to make an exit with well enough space. This can result in a partially blocked lane of traffic — something not uncommon to San Francisco with taxis, Lyfts and Ubers picking and dropping off. However, I feel this maneuver can be tightened up with a quicker time to drive — Waymos will wait until you’re safely in the car and seated before moving, about 5-10 seconds too long — and stopping sooner or going farther to find a more open spot or driveway. Given San Francisco road network, this can only go so far, and some external communication like “Pulling overing, awaiting passenger” to drivers could go a long way.

Autonomous cars are far from perfect, but logging extensive time in a Waymo makes it feel damn near possible and light years ahead of human drivers. I couldn’t be more excited about this.