Is the era of robotaxis over before it ever really started?

For as much as dyspeptic futurists grumble that “they promised us jet-packs” whenever it comes time to measure the utopian predictions of the past century with the decidedly more mundane present, the reality, as author William Gibson famously said, is that “the future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Consider the self-driving car: long a staple of retrofuturist forecasts, automated vehicles are slowly working their way from the pages of science fiction onto America’s roadways — particularly in San Francisco, where a burgeoning driverless taxi network has become the “tip of the spear” for the self-driving auto industry, according to Professor Missy Cummings, director of George Mason University’s Autonomy and Robotics Center, in The Atlantic.  

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As more cities prepare for an influx of driverless taxis, the Bay Area’s case study has raised questions about safety, efficacy, and the need for robotic vehicles at large. Are the speed bumps in this robotaxi rollout enough to derail the nascent industry as a whole? 

“Admit there are challenges and issues”

In early August, California’s Public Utilities Commission approved a significant expansion for Cruise and Waymo, the state’s two licensed robotaxi services, allowing them to operate 24-hour service across the whole of San Francisco, “with no limit on the number of robotaxis they can put on the roads,” TechCrunch reported. The vote came “in spite of mounting opposition from residents and city agencies that have urged caution and a more incremental approach to expansion.” Just one week later Cruise agreed to cut its fleet in half after one of its driverless vehicles “entered the intersection on a green light and was struck” by a fire truck which “appeared to be en route to an emergency scene,” the company said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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“San Francisco exposed us to a lot of chaos,” a Cruise representative told The Atlantic, praising it as “the exact kind of chaos that our technology needs.” Included in that chaos are examples of driverless taxis getting stuck in wet concrete (“It thinks it’s a road and it ain’t because it ain’t got a brain,” bystander Paul Harvey told the San Francisco Gate) and killing a dog it had “correctly identified” but was “unable to avoid” according to KRON. But where the company sees a necessary form of “chaos,” others in San Francisco are worried that the inherent unreliability of the still-developing technology could put lives at risk. The companies to “come out with their PR folks and take zero responsibility,” SF Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson told Bloomberg. “We need them to come to the table and admit there are challenges and issues, and work with us to solve them.” SF Board of Supervisors President David Peskin agreed, telling The Mercury News the robotaxis are “not ready for prime time” and a “recipe for death.” Some Bay Area citizens have been even more proactive: the anonymous “Safe Street Rebel” group regularly exploits a glitch in driverless car programming that incapacitates vehicles when a traffic cone is placed on its hood — “a protest against the city being used as a testing ground for this emerging technology,” NPR reported. 

“Maybe someday they will get benefits”

Regardless of the bumpy San Francisco rollout, the companies behind Cruise and Waymo are already expanding their footprint nationwide: Cruise, owned by General Motors, has 15 total cities in which it is “either mapping, testing or deploying” TechCrunch reported. Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, is already operating in Phoenix and Austin, while working on a product that can be “applied to any city, on any type of vehicle” for everything from “ride-hailing and long-haul trucking to local delivery and eventually personal car ownership,” a spokesperson told The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, San Francisco city officials have officially petitioned the state to walk back the expansive permissions granted earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. For the time being, though, “it’s wrong to expose residents of the city to increased risk of harm because maybe someday they will get benefits,” Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Phil Koopman told the Atlantic. “We don’t actually know when that day will be.”

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