San Francisco is a postcard from a driverless car future. Here’s what it’s like.

Camera-covered cars with nobody inside are causing traffic jams, angering residents and amazing tourists

This car seems normal until you realize there's no one driving. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)
11 min

SAN FRANCISCO — When the dense, iconic fog rolled in over the residential neighborhood of Balboa Terrace on a recent Tuesday, five matching white SUVs covered in cameras ground to a halt.

Confused by the drop in visibility, the Google-owned electric Jaguar I-PACEs tried to pull over and wait out the weather — creating a brief traffic jam. But there was no one inside to yell at. The cars were empty autonomous cars run by software.

It was just another day in the life of San Franciscans, who have noticed a sudden increase in the empty vehicles roaming the streets over the past few months. Google-owned Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise are some of the companies testing their autonomous technology here, training the cars on how to share the roads with less predictable humans and navigate real world situations. It’s happening in other cities as well, including Phoenix, Austin and parts of Los Angeles, and the companies have plans to expand to more locations in the coming year.

While the vehicles have been tested here since 2018, they’ve more recently been allowed to drive around on roads during the daytime without safety drivers — people who are paid to be on standby in the driver’s seat in case something goes wrong. Waymo started one year ago, Cruise at the end of 2021, though they’ve been steadily increasing the numbers. That’s led to an uptick in incidents, residents say, from harmless traffic jams to accidents such as the rear-ending of a public bus.

Living adjacent to Silicon Valley, San Franciscans are used to being beta test subjects for Big Tech. They’ve previously been privy to the launch of Uber and ride hailing, Airbnb short-term rentals, dockless electric scooters and sidewalk robots.

But some residents are starting to question that arrangement, particularly as driverless-vehicle companies eye a next phase: offering rides to people in more places, 24 hours a day.

“Tech companies see us as this place where they can find a higher tolerance for their shenanigans,” said Marita Murphy, 40, who works in audio production in the city. “I don’t feel, as someone who lives out here, that I have any control or say over that. It feels like we’re beholden to the will of these companies and their moneymaking motives.”

Waymo acknowledged the fog-induced traffic jam and said its cars briefly pulled over for safety. Cruise is developing the technology to provide safer and more affordable green transportation options, said spokesman Drew Pusateri.

Ghost cars take some getting used to

A driverless Cruise. (Video: Monique Woo / The Washington Post)

For the most part, Cruise and Waymo’s empty cars move like diligent if nervous student drivers, never exceeding the speed limit, coming to a full stop at stop signs and hitting the brakes at the slightest hint of a problem. Often what’s most alarming to people isn’t how they move, but the sight of an empty car covered in cameras and sensors with a steering wheel moving on its own.

“It’s just kind of uncomfortable, eerie, jarring. There’s a part of our brains that thinks, this doesn’t make sense,” said Molly McDermott, a San Francisco public school teacher in the city’s Mission District who has lived here for 15 years. “It’s a level of future I’m not ready for.”

Joyce McKinney lives across from a public park that doubles as an unofficial parking spot for Waymo cars. She’ll see as many as three of them lined up on the side of the road, usually parallel parked. Once, one came to a stop in the middle of the road and blocked traffic for 15 minutes. Eventually, the cars spring to life and drive away.

Despite glitches, she said, she thinks they’re as good as or better than local human drivers. “I feel far less menaced by the driverless cars than I do by the ones with people.”

She is mostly concerned about what the technology could mean for the city — especially after witnessing the impact of ride-hailing businesses.

“I feel Uber and Lyft had a terrible impact on San Francisco, and I would hate to see Waymo and Cruise driverless cars step into the breach and become, again, a glut on the city streets,” McKinney said.

Move fast and hit brakes on things

A driverless Waymo navigates its way through Bernal Heights, a neighborhood in San Francisco. (Video: Monica Rodman / The Washington Post)

Facebook famously had the motto “Move fast and break things,” but that classic tech start-up approach is a different equation when it comes to driverless cars.

There was no vote to allow the cars to be tested in San Francisco. The massive technology and automotive companies were given the go-ahead by state agencies, including the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and the city is limited in how much it can regulate the testing programs.

“It’s not a town that’s unwelcoming to tech,” said Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “If you want to use San Francisco as a petri dish, you should probably ask for permission and collaboration rather than forgiveness, which has marked the tech bros’ industries use of San Francisco.”

The city has passed regulations in response to entities such as Airbnb, limiting how many homes can be used solely as short-term rentals to ensure there’s more available housing. After they were launched, dockless electric scooters were scattered around the city until it regulated those as well.

In January, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority wrote a 23-page letter to state agencies outlining the city’s concerns about autonomous vehicles and protesting the companies’ plans for expansion. Cruise wants to expand its paid ride-hailing service to the entire city without time restrictions.

Peskin said the companies have been less than cooperative and forthcoming with local officials, who have concerns about safety, transparency, privacy and inconvenience.

“This could lead to a safer world of transportation and less congestion. It could also be a dystopian nightmare,” Peskin said.

Cruise spokesman Pusateri said that the company is sorry for any inconveniences but that they should be viewed against the injuries and deaths caused by human driven cars in San Francisco. Waymo said incidents are infrequent relative to how many autonomous miles the cars are driving. The cars’ driving abilities improve with each new software release, said David Margines, group product manager at Waymo.

A driverless Waymo is stuck beside a downed tree after severe wind hit the Bay Area. (Video: Jessica Hilberman)

The unexpected seems to be one of the biggest issues for self-driving cars, and the culprit in their most high-profile incidents. The cars can get confused, freeze and even crash when they encounter an entirely new scenario that hasn’t been preprogrammed in.

After a series of dangerous storms hammered the area in March, at least one Waymo car couldn’t figure out how to get around a tree and came to a standstill in an intersection. More recently, a Cruise car collided with the back of a city articulated bus, which has two sections and is significantly longer than regular buses. GM said it updated its 300 cars to reprogram them to better understand the buses.

Even more dangerous, the cars struggle at emergency sites. At one active fire, a firefighter had to break out the window of the Cruise car to stop it from running over a hose. At another, a car ran over a fire hose that was being used, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority letter.

A death is everyone’s biggest fear, and almost guaranteed to happen again at some point. In 2018, an autonomous Uber car with a distracted safety driver at the wheel hit and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was pushing her bike across a road at night in Tempe, Ariz.

The car’s system didn’t account for the possibility that a person would cross the street outside of a crosswalk, according to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. Uber shut down its driverless car program in 2020 and is now working with outside car companies.

Adapting to a robot-car world

A driverless Waymo hesitates at a crosswalk in front of a school in San Francisco. (Video: Heather Kelly / The Washington Post)

While the cars are learning how to deal with the quirks of human behavior, humans are learning how to deal with the cars.

“These autonomous systems can’t be social, so we have to be extra social, we have to yield,” said Sally Applin, an anthropologist who studies the intersection between people, algorithms and ethics. “I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible to teach a car all of the possible interactions it could have.”

The lack of eye contact can be unnerving for pedestrians, as well as parents who teach their kids to make sure they have a driver’s attention before walking in front of them. Waving, looking, smiling and nodding are mostly useless with driverless cars. They have to be replaced by a blind trust that the car’s systems will spot you.

The car companies say they have already worked on teaching cars to recognize hand gestures, like a traffic officer would make.

Anna Limkin, who lives in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood, doesn’t have that trust in the technology. “Tech doesn’t yet exist to replicate the senses that we have that allow us to escape, offset or prevent an accident,” Limkin said.

In a twist, some people like to test the cars, and have been known to lunge at them or jump in front of them to see if they’ll stop.

Humans are far from perfect drivers. In 2021, there were 37 traffic fatalities in San Francisco, and that number has gone up almost every year since 2017.

Automated cars, programmed to follow traffic rules, are a relief for some residents.

Andrew Harding doesn’t own a car and commutes almost entirely by bike and public transportation. He moved with his family to San Francisco from Atlanta last year in large part because the city fit his car-free lifestyle. The 47-year-old technical architect said he’s had positive experiences sharing the road with Waymo and Cruise cars, which are programmed to give bicyclists the proper amount of clearance when they pass, or to slow down and stay behind.

“They’re the only thing obeying the speed limit in the Sunset, they’re the only thing respecting cyclists,” said Harding, referring to the neighborhood. “Speed is what kills people. That’s why I continue to be positive.”

Cruise is the only company charging people to ride in its driverless taxis in San Francisco. (Video: Omar Saeed via TikTok)

While locals may be wary or used to them, tourists in the Bay Area are still amazed at the sight of the vehicles steering themselves and are adding test rides to their itineraries.

Both Waymo and Cruise have apps where you can sign up for a waitlist to take rides in the cars. Waymo’s service, called Waymo One, is free here for now; Cruise charges about the same as an Uber.

“It’s just the idea of driving in a future car — you hear about it in the news but I thought being able to ride in it would be such a cool endeavor,” said Omar Saeed, a 29-year-old from Ohio who was on vacation in San Francisco in April. “I wanted to see how it would react if there was an obstacle. I kind of wanted to play and test the waters a little bit.”

After he saw a TikTok of someone explaining how to take a ride in a Cruise car, he signed up on the app and was approved four days later. Cruise is only approved to give paid rides from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. He said that although the ride was fun, the vehicle appeared to still be in the learning stages.

He said he’s glad he got to experience something that most people aren’t even aware is happening.

“In my mind, it was a glorified amusement park ride.”

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