How San Francisco slammed the brakes on robo-taxis

How San Francisco slammed the brakes on robo-taxis

Thousands of visitors hoping to take a ride in a driverless car during their mid-November stay in San Francisco – for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, for example – were left disappointed. Robo-taxis, which were ubiquitous in the Californian city over the summer, have since kept a low profile if they haven’t simply disappeared.

At the beginning of August, robot cabs from Google subsidiary Waymo and General Motors (GM) subsidiary Cruise – the two companies with the most advanced technology – were authorized by the state of California to operate in San Francisco and to charge fares. These “ghost cars” became a real tourist attraction, and the city had cemented its image as the laboratory for the future of transportation. Waymo offered 20,000 paid rides in August and 8,400 free rides, compared with 17,000 and 49,000 respectively for Cruise.

Read more Article reserved for our subscribers Robot cabs roam the streets of San Francisco

Autonomous car pioneers are well aware that their product is at the mercy of the slightest incident, and that caution is required when dealing with public opinion. During the 21-nation APEC summit – from Saturday, November 11 to Friday, November 17 – Waymo decided to scale down its operations, despite the presence of thousands of potential customers.

The company didn’t want to take the risk of its Jaguars’ lidars (laser radars), cameras and sensors “reading” urban signals incorrectly, as traffic patterns in the city center were being disrupted by the passage of official motorcades. Additionally, robo-taxis are a prime target for protesters: During the conference, the doors of a Waymo Jaguar were tagged with the slogans “Free Palestine” and “Free Gaza.”

‘Rebuild public trust’

Cruise’s case is more problematic. If its Chevrolet Bolts are nowhere to be seen, it’s because the company had its license suspended on October 24 by the Californian Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). After an accident that left one person injured in San Francisco, the agency ruled that the vehicles “may lack the ability to respond in a safe and appropriate manner during incidents involving a pedestrian.” At the time, Cruise had 400 cars in operation in San Francisco.

The accident took place in downtown San Francisco on October 2, at 9:30 pm. A car – driven by a human – crossing Market Street collided with a female pedestrian, before fleeing the scene. The collision threw the pedestrian into the path of a driverless Cruise car, which was unable to avoid the impact. The victim did not die, but was trapped under the car’s rear axle and tire until emergency services arrived.

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