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"Hey Tripp," a disembodied female voice said over the loudspeakers of a driverless taxi set to pick up a ticket near the colorful Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.
“This experience may feel futuristic,” said the voice. “Please do not touch the steering wheel or pedals while driving. If you have any questions, you can find information in the Waymo app, for example about how we keep our cars safe and clean.
For several years, the hilly and crowded streets of San Francisco have become a test track for hundreds of autonomous cars operated by companiesWaymo, an autonomous vehicle company owned by Alphabet, the parent of Google, IRejs General Motors.
Even though on Mondayopposition from San Francisco officials who fear the cars are not particularly safe, Waymo vehicles began to operate like pay taxis, except for the driver. For the first time, some people could book rides and pay for rides in a Waymo car without a driver. Cruise already offers limited paid services to parts of the city.
The New York Times sent three reporters around the city to test Waymo taxi robots. I started with Alamo Square, home to famous peopleWomen's painted houses. Yiwen Lu moved onMarina Green, along San Francisco's North Waterfront, and Mike Isaac started a walk near the historic siteMission Dolores Basilica.
Our destination: Beach Chalet Restaurant, where San Francisco's Golden Gate Park meets the Pacific Ocean. Waymo only offers limited routes in downtown San Francisco, so we tried to recreate the experience a tourist might have getting around the city in a driverless taxi.
Waymo's taxi robots went live as tensions escalated in San Francisco over self-driving cars.City officials and activists are calling on state officials to reverse or slow down the planfor Waymo and Cruise, they will start charging passengers for trips around the city around the clock.
Last week, the Cruise self-driving car collided with a fire truck.Another excursion vehiclestuck in wet concrete.Several Cruise cars blocked traffic last weekin the North Beach area.On Friday, state regulators asked Cruise to reduce the number of vehicles by halfit worked.
Waymo had fewer headline-worthy issues. In May, one ofhis cars hit and killed a small dog. A few years ago,A Waymo unmanned car with a safety driver steering the wheel hit a pedestrianwho had to be taken to the hospital. The company has been charging tolls in the Phoenix area for several years and currently has a fleet that sails approximately 300 km in the area, including the airport and back.
Waymo's app, Waymo One, looks and feels just like Uber. Riders enter their destination and receive an estimated waiting time. Once you register your requests, the company will dispatch a fleet of 250 white Jaguar vehicles around the city. Thecars are incredibly expensive, equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras, worth up to $200,000.
Each of us waited five to ten minutes for the ride.
The Waymo experience can be confusing at first. As the car pulled up to the curb beside the Painted Ladies, I reached for the doorknob. But the handles were leaning against the door and wouldn't open. I had to press the "unlock" button in the app. When I did, the handles fell off the door and I was able to get inside.
The trip went so smoothly that the novelty began to fade, turning the trip into the future into another city tour. The car was precise and purposeful, though lacking the agility and interaction you'd get with a human driver. He stopped in front of pedestrians and gave way to emergency vehicles.
Like my journey, Yiwen's journey was completely sleepy. The car was very accurate. He never exceeded the speed limit, used his turn signal correctly before changing lanes, and gave way to pedestrians at crosswalks that fast drivers might ignore.
Mike's robot taxi, however, was more aggressive. He jumped off the starting line with more acceleration than he expected. He was shocked by the way the car drove through several congested neighborhoods before stopping in the driveway to the beach.
When my Waymo reached a construction site blocking the right lane, it slowed down from 30 mph to 20 mph. and turn on the turn signal to move to the left lane. Moments later, the car stopped at a stop sign as a fire truck with flashing lights drove up. Waymo hesitated. A brief explanation appeared on the touchscreen: "He's in an emergency vehicle." Wait for the fire truck to pass before exiting the intersection.
The steering wheel turned by itself. I wondered what would happen if I touched the steering wheel, so I grabbed it as the Waymo swerved from one lane to another. The car ignored me and moved on.
Yiwen's journey began with a complication: an unrelated accident near the Marina Green car park. Police cars blocked part of the road, so Waymo's car quickly diverted. Instead of taking the main road, Waymo's car entered a nearby residential road and crashed.
All cars reacted quickly to pedestrians. My vehicle waited patiently at intersections and crosswalks while people walked their dogs, drank coffee, and cycled toward Golden Gate Park.
However, at the top of the hill, Mike's car recognized the man crossing the road at the crosswalk, but continued to slowly drive forward, waiting until he reached the other side. The pedestrian gave the car—and Mike—an exasperated look.
Cars offer more goodies and features than Uber or taxi. The touchscreens in the rear seats have a button to play music. There are many playlists to choose from, including jazz, classical, rock, and hip-hop.
Mike wanted to hear itin the punk band Armedand tried to find the band's music in the Waymo app. To do so, however, he had to download an app called Google Assistant and request a specific song by speaking into his phone's microphone. His first try brought up the wrong band, and his second brought a live version of the song he requested.
Instead of taking the most direct route to the beach on a busy road, my Waymo crossed Golden Gate Park and took a less busy road, but this added a few minutes to the trip. He ran most of the route at 29 mph. — one mile an hour below the speed limit — and defers other drivers. At one point, he sat behind the car for several minutes and waited for a left turn instead of entering the right lane and avoiding the vehicle.
My Waymo pulled into the parking lot six minutes later than originally anticipated. He slid across the parking lot into a small, empty space where the touchscreen map showed a circle. As soon as he entered the circle, he stopped.
"You are here," said the woman. "Make sure it's clean before you go out."
As I got out of the car, the meditative electronic music that greeted me at the beginning of the journey filled it. Mike arrived shortly after me.
Yiwen's car was less direct. At the start of the trip, he told her that it would be a two-minute walk from the drop-off point to the restaurant. The car reminded her of this when she arrived and encouraged her to use the app to guide her on her walk to the Beach Chalet.
Waymo rides were inexpensive, ranging from $18 to $21, about the same as Uber. It will be years, if not decades, before Waymo recoups the billions of dollars invested in its services. Although there is no driver, each ride is manned by staff at the Waymo location who can be called if the car runs into problems.
But that's Waymo's problem. It's easy for the rest of us to forget that there's no one behind the wheel of robotic taxis. The only reminder comes when you start thanking the driver before getting out of the car. A glance at the empty front seat reminds you that you are alone.
Tripe Mickle'aincludes San Francisco technology including Apple and others. Previously, he worked for the Wall Street Journal for eight years, writing about Apple, Google, bourbon and beer. More about Tripp Mickle
Yuen Luis a technology exhibition partner based in San Francisco. More about Yiwen Lu
Mike Isaacis a tech correspondent and author of Super Pomped: The Battle for Uber, a best-selling book about the dramatic rise and fall of a trucking company. He writes regularly on Facebook and Silicon Valley, and lives in San Francisco. More about Mike Isaac
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