Even with vastly reduced expectations, autonomous vehicles are falling short.
In the August 9th New York Times, Yiwen Lu told us “San Francisco Balks at Expanding Driverless Car Services on City’s Roads.” She called them “a jarring sight” “that “has become common” there. Cruise, which was offering taxi rides, and Waymo, whose autonomous cars I saw tested in Arizona four years ago, wanted to charge customers “throughout the city, round the clock.” Although none thus far had been “blamed for any serious injuries or crashes,” there had been incidents in which the vehicles, on roads, “simply shut down and won’t move.”
In a piece from Atlantic ten days later, Anna Wiener reported that “Robo-Taxis Are Legal Now,” because of a California Public Utilities Commission vote to approve the autonomous vehicle increase above. It didn’t take long for the people against it to seem vindicated, as a week later “a driverless Cruise car, carrying a passenger, collided with a fire truck,” apparently not yielding to it when traffic controls alone indicated it would not need to, and “a couple of hours later… another driverless Cruise car was involved in an accident, after it responded to an oncoming car by braking and stopping short.” The next day, the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles asked that Cruise cut its maximum-allowed number of autonomous vehicles running there in half, and, per “Cruise Agrees to Reduce Driverless Car Fleet in San Francisco After Crash,” on August 18th and also in the New York Times by Yiwen Lu, that request was granted.
In October came another mishap there. As Julie Angwin wrote in “Autonomous Vehicles Are Driving Blind” (The New York Times, October 11th), earlier that month “a woman suffered traumatic injuries from being struck by a driver and thrown into the path of“ a driverless car. As well, “San Francisco’s fire chief… recently testified that as of August, autonomous vehicles interfered with firefighting duties 55 times this year.” Angwin blamed a lack of “federal software safety testing standards for autonomous vehicles,” and expanded her concern to artificial intelligence in general.
Another permutation was the subject of “Remote Driving Is a Sneaky Shortcut to the Robotaxi” (Sean Lightbown, Wired.com, October 18th). “On the busy streets of suburban Berlin, just south of Templehofer Feld, a white Kia is skillfully navigating double-parked cars, roadworks, cyclists, and pedestrians. Dan, the driver, strikes up a conversation with his passengers, remarking on the changing traffic lights and the sound of an ambulance screaming past in the other direction. But Dan isn’t in the car.” Dan is a “teledriver,” working for “German startup Vay.” That capability had been used to back up driverless vehicles during testing and could now be used to cover “driver shortages at airports, harbors, or in the trucking industry” with “a bank of remote drivers available around the world.” It could allow, for example, intercity truck driving by people not needing to be away from their families, with longer hours per vehicle as one remote driver could take over for another.
The self-driving situation discussed before worsened soon thereafter, as “Cruise’s Driverless Taxi Service in San Francisco Is Suspended” (Yiwen Lu and Cade Metz, The New York Times, October 24th). It was made by the state DMV, due mainly to the accident earlier that month, in which the pedestrian was “trapped under the driverless car,” which then “tried to pull over” and “dragged the pedestrian until it stopped.”
Four weeks later, another piece by Lu in the Times summarized events in “’Lost Time for No Reason’: How Driverless Taxis Are Stressing Cities.” One involved two autonomous vehicles, each blocking a side of the road which “added seven minutes” to an ambulance run. San Francisco had seen “more than 600 self-driving vehicle incidents… from June 2022 to June 2023,” and Austin, another though smaller hub for driverless taxicabs, had 52 “incidents” between July 8 and October 24. Cruise has now “suspended its autonomous vehicle operations,” and its CEO resigned on November 19th.
The future is not entirely hopeless for self-driving taxis. Lu reported that Nashville and Seattle, still on track to allow them, had started training for firefighters on dealing with them, and Phoenix, after three years of allowing “autonomous taxi services,” has 200 with few complaints. That is good, since their developers clearly have things to learn about different locations. The promise of autonomous vehicles is still great – we still have over 30,000 annual human-caused road deaths every year – so we should all hope that 2023 will go down as the worst year for their technology.