Self-driving taxis are ferrying passengers across San Francisco and Phoenix, and they could be coming to a street near you very soon.
The two leading robotaxi companies, GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo, are expanding commercial services to cities across the country, including Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City. They’re scaling up fast, and a third company, Amazon’s Zoox, is playing catch-up.
On August 10, the California Public Utilities Commission handed Cruise and Waymo a victory by allowing them to operate across San Francisco at all hours and charge fares. During a six-and-a-half-hour hearing, hundreds of residents testified for and against the robotaxis. Supporters claimed they were safer and more reliable than human-driven vehicles, and disabled people said they were more accessible, especially for service animals. Opponents, including transit and fire officials, argued that the taxis had repeatedly gotten in the way of emergency responders and had become a nuisance.
The very next day, Cruise cars snarled traffic in the city’s North Beach neighborhood after the Outside Lands Music Festival being held in the western part of the city caused wireless service problems and the cars lost contact with their central office. The traffic meltdown was proof to many that the cars were not ready for a larger rollout.
Then, on Wednesday, August 16 — less than a week after California regulators lifted restrictions on Cruise and Waymo — San Francisco officials asked for that approval to be halted, arguing the city “will suffer serious harm” with the services expanded to daytime hours.
Liz Lindqwister, a data journalist at the nonprofit news startup the San Francisco Standard, has been documenting the bumpy expansion of robotaxis — while using them herself to commute around town.
“People like to say that San Francisco is at the heart of the robotaxi revolution. And they’re practically everywhere in the city now. You can see them crawling on every single street,” Lindqwister said.
To learn more about riding in cars with robots, Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram spoke to Lindqwister on Vox’s daily news explainer podcast. Read on for a partial transcript of the conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, and listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.
This isn’t an experiment. This is the future. This is reality.
It’s very real. And it’s happening right in my backyard. You’ll see them every single day when you’re going to work. I’ve taken them out to go get drinks with friends and stuff, and they’ve become about as ubiquitous as an Uber or a Lyft.
I did not know it was so ubiquitous that people were just taking them out to go get drinks with their friends on a Friday night or whatever. What was the experience like?
It’s very surreal because in a lot of ways the experience of riding in a robotaxi is just like an Uber. It’s a normal car. When you’re in a Waymo, it’ll be a Jaguar …
A Jaguar robot car?!
Yeah, it’s very bougie. It feels very fancy and luxurious. But you’ll just be riding through town, and it just doesn’t have a driver. You’ll see the wheel moving and spinning and the pedals going, but there won’t be any driver up front.
Do you tip the robot taxi?
I have never tipped a robot taxi. Maybe that makes me a stingy rider, but I don’t really feel the need to tip the technology.
Does it ask you to tip the robot driver?
No, it doesn’t. And in the case of Waymo, it wasn’t able to even charge me for rides up until literally Thursday of last week. Basically, this robotaxi revolution really got kicked into high gear last Thursday because of this big state vote by the California Public Utilities Commission.
There were dozens of people who lined up outside of the meeting on Thursday, and they gave six hours of public comment to say how much they really dislike these cars or how much they love them. Waymo and Cruise, they had a pretty big contingent there and support. Mothers Against Drunk Driving like to support Cruise because they like to plug that these robotaxis are safer than the average driver.
On the flip side, there’s just a whole slew of people that have seen how they’ve really disrupted life in San Francisco. There’s been a lot of pushback from city officials, from the fire department, and from local activists who really don’t want to see more cars on the street. But it still passed. They basically granted these robotaxis the ability to expand, unlimited, through all parts of the city and drive all hours of the day and charge money for it, basically making them like taxis.
So these rides were free for a time. How much are they now that they’re not free?
It depends on the company, because until now, Cruise was actually able to charge for its rides. The confusing part about this is that different companies had different rules. But basically Waymo hasn’t released its pricing model. They say that there’s going to be a base fee, and that there’s going to be cost per mile, cost per time. And the same thing with Cruise, except Cruise has been more public about their base fee of $5 and the additional costs on top of it.
How is this changing the experience of calling a cab? Are people doing different things in the car now that they’re alone?
In some of my reporting, we found that people are starting to do debaucherous things or unseemly things in the car. We found a handful of people who had either had sex or hooked up in the back of a robotaxi because there’s just no driver to tell you you can’t do that. And I’d imagine the same goes for alcohol or drugs. The companies obviously don’t plug this as something that you should do in their vehicles.
Why not?! Is sex illegal in San Francisco?
Definitely not in robotaxis, according to some of our more adventurous readers.
Well, have there been any problems yet with these robocars?
That’s an understatement, honestly. It’s pretty crazy. These cars will just get caught. Let’s say there are 10 fire trucks coming down to stop a blaze in San Francisco. The Cruise cars don’t know what to do. They’ll just brick up on the street and not move. The issue with that is that they’ll be blocking traffic. They’ll be blocking the emergency vehicles.
So they crumble under pressure.
They definitely crumble under pressure. And they were put to the test this Friday. San Francisco has this pretty famous music festival called Outside Lands. Tens of thousands of people attend. It’s a really big event for the city. And Cruise and Waymo were still operating around the park where the festival was held.
This was day one of the new world that we were living in in San Francisco.
Day one of the new world. And they had a meltdown. As many as a dozen stalled Cruise cars blocked the streets in a neighborhood in the north part of the city. The company said that it was because all of the people at Outside Lands disrupted the cellphone signal or the signal that the Cruise cars use to operate.
The robots blamed the people.
Yeah, the robots blamed the people. A lot of people said that the robotaxis just couldn’t handle the floods of people walking on the street. They’ll just stop. And it’s kind of funny to see because the cars kind of look clueless. And there’s no driver in them either. So you really can’t yell at them to move or honk at them either. I think something that people don’t talk enough about too, with Cruise, is that they’re such cute little cars, that it really, truly is comical when they mess up.
But of course, it’s all cute and fun until someone gets hurt. And hearing that these cars just have a meltdown when there’s emergency vehicles flying through a crowded street or when there’s lots of people around is concerning.
Yeah. Having driven in so many robotaxis at this point, it’s most interesting to see humans’ relationships to these robot cars and not necessarily the robot cars themselves. When I’m inside them, I’ll see people flipping me off or just glaring or yelling at me because they feel so strongly about it. They’re so frustrated with these dinky little robot cars.
They’re also coning the cars. It sounds funny, but it’s literally traffic cones that activists are placing on top of robotaxi sensors so that they can’t move. The city has even taken it into their own hands where, a firefighter in an emergency situation, they coned a Cruise car because they didn’t want it to keep moving into an emergency situation.
Even the firefighters are getting in on it. So it hasn’t been a totally smooth transition. But that’s sort of to be expected, I imagine.
Yeah. And I think the big question now, too, is where this is going to fit in in the broader transportation landscape of not just San Francisco, but the state and the country. We have Ubers and Lyfts that still exist. But I imagine a lot of those drivers are frustrated that there are all these self-driving cars that might take their positions.
And then, of course, there are transit problems with funding in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Our public transportation system is really struggling. So for another car option, private option, to show up like this, that gets a lot of folks really frustrated. Like, is this the right use of our time, of our priorities, of our funding? I don’t know.
Right. Is the answer more cars?
Yeah, And that’s a lot of the criticism, is that San Francisco’s a dense city. It’s a small city. Does it really need thousands more of these robotaxis?
It sounds like what you’re saying is that people ought to get used to the idea of being driven around by robots.
I think the CPUC vote basically said that. Whether or not San Franciscans like it, robotaxis are here to stay. And now they have unlimited access to the city and can charge money for it. And there are a lot of people excited about it. Waymo likes to say that they have a wait list of over 100,000 people. That’s a lot of people that are excited to drive in their cars.
Or it’s just 100,000 people who are really excited about having sex in a robot car.
I mean, you said it, not me!
At the end of the day, it’s definitely a novelty to try out one of these cars. My parents are going to come visit in a month, and that’ll be the first thing I do, is show them the future in a robotaxi.