This summer, pedestrians in San Francisco fall into two categories: residents who are used to and already indifferent to self-driving cars, and amazed tourists who reach for their smartphones to capture scenes they believe are science fiction.
“Make sure you ask the driver for permission,” one passerby jokes with another, who is filming the self-driving car that Katherine Allen, a 37-year-old lawyer, has just got into.
The passenger closes the back door and the white Jaguar pulls into traffic in a busy neighborhood full of pedestrians and cyclists.
The lawyer has been testing Waymo robot taxis on a voluntary basis since the end of 2021. At first, she always found an employee of this Alphabet subsidiary (Google parent) on board who would take over the wheel if necessary.
But one night a few months ago the car arrived empty.
“I was very nervous the first time, but not so nervous that I didn’t go along. I was excited too,” she recalls.
“During the first two-thirds of the journey, about twenty minutes, she was really scared. And suddenly she seemed normal, which is strange because she wasn’t normal!”
Vehicles in San Francisco are operated by Waymo and Cruise, owned by General Motors. Both received permits from a California regulatory agency earlier this summer to operate 24 hours a day throughout the city except on the freeways.
This made San Francisco the first major city to have two fully operational fleets of driverless vehicles, which the companies hope will fuel their expansion elsewhere in the United States.
Last week, Isaac Smith, a 50-year-old San Francisco resident and homemaker, booked his first trip through the Cruise app with AFP.
The vehicle, named “Percussion,” arrived quickly. But instead of taking the direct route, which would have gotten to the supermarket in less than five minutes, he took a long and inexplicable detour.
“It’s fascinating that the wheel turns (on its own)… It’s a bit spooky,” says Isaac.
“Actually, I’m impressed. Brakes well, doesn’t accelerate insanely. It is nice”.
The passenger also tries out the general knowledge quiz offered on the screen in front of them.
But you disagree with the answer for the best Mexican sandwich in San Francisco. “He drives well, but he doesn’t know anything about burritos,” says Isaac.
Twenty minutes and ten questions later, Percussion finally reaches its goal. He parks quite a distance from the store, probably due to road works.
Nothing to deter Isaac: “It was fantastic. I would do it again,” he says. “It’s quiet, there’s no small talk, no random music on the radio (…) I would choose it because I’m kind of antisocial.”
Katherine Allen gets stuck in her Waymo at rush hour.
You’ve just pushed the emergency stop button and the car has stalled at the curb but is having trouble rejoining traffic.
Human-controlled vehicles overtake you and ignore your turn signal.
The on-board computer is “very cautious, which can be annoying for other drivers,” says Allen, appreciating the calmness of a car that “isn’t prone to restlessness.”
To date, most of the recorded incidents have involved vehicles stopped on the road, blocking traffic.
But transportation authorities have asked Cruise to halve its San Francisco fleet (to 50 active cars during the day and 150 at night) while investigating two crashes over the past week, including one involving a truck. firefighters.
Split robot taxis. Environmentalists accuse them of perpetuating the dominance of the personal car, disability organizations find them inadequate to meet their needs, and unions fear job losses.
Others, however, consider them positive for these reasons.
And the excitement is there: Waymo says it has more than 100,000 people on the waiting list.
After enjoying many free rides, Allen will have to pay in the future. Will you continue to use Waymo?
“It will depend on price and time… Autonomous cars are almost always slower.”