Main menu


How will the world be changed by driverless cars - Robot taxis

 The public and their elected representatives must take a more active role in shaping the future of this new technology.

How will the world be changed by driverless cars?

In some neighborhoods of San Francisco, at certain hours of the night, it seems that 1 in 10 cars are on the road without a driver behind the wheel.

They're not experimental cars, and this isn't an experiment. Many of San Francisco's ghostly driverless cars are robot taxis, and they're in direct competition with traditional taxis, Uber and Lyft, and public transportation. They have become a real if currently marginal, part of the city's transportation system, and it seems that the companies operating these cars; That is, Cruise and Waymo are ready to continue expanding their services in San Francisco, Austin, and Phoenix; And maybe even Los Angeles in the coming months.

Robot taxis

An industry that is advancing at a speed that is not comparable to the speed of decision-makers dealing with it.

I've spent the past year writing about robot taxis for the San Francisco Examiner, and during the past three months, I've taken multiple self-driving cruise vehicles... During my reporting work, I was struck by the indifference in the public debate about robot taxis and came to the conclusion that most people, including many influential decision-makers, are unaware of how fast the industry is progressing, or its harsh effects on employment and transportation in the near term.

Certain agencies such as the California Public Service Commission formulate all-important decisions about robot taxis relatively vaguely. Legal frameworks remain woefully thin. In the state of San Francisco, cities do not have regulatory powers over the robotic taxis that dot their roads, and police cannot legally fine them for traffic violations.

It is time for the public and their elected representatives to play a more active role in shaping the future of this new technology. Like it or not, robot taxis have become a reality, and now it's time for the hard task of making the final decision.

After several years of broken promises, it is now widely accepted that the dream of owning your own mobile pod that you can use for sleeping, playing, and grooming is a long way off and may take years, perhaps decades. the autopilot system from Tesla; That misleading name, the closest thing to self-driving technology in mass-market cars, is now under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Justice.

Absence of framework and Safety laws

The media has been right to be skeptical about robot taxis, and journalists (myself included) have reported on odd robotic behavior, troubling software glitches, and a lack of data transparency at Cruise and Waymo. The autonomous Cruises, in particular, displayed a dangerous tendency to stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason; Which leads to obstruction of traffic for long periods. San Francisco officials documented at least 92 such incidents over a period of just 6 months; Including 3 incidents that impeded the work of the emergency response teams.

But these critical news stories, important as they are, mask the general trend that has been moving steadily in favor of the robot taxi industry. Over the past few years, Cruise and Waymo have both navigated several major legal hurdles, expanded into new markets, and accumulated more than 1.6 million kilometers of actual autonomous driving without incidents in several major US cities.

The difference between robot taxis and self-driving personal cars

Operationally, robot taxis are completely different from personal self-driving cars, and they are far more commercially viable. These cars can be released within a very limited area where they are subject to good training, their use is closely monitored by the company that designed them, and they are removed from the roads immediately when the weather deteriorates or any other problem occurs.

Unfortunately, there is no government-approved standard framework for evaluating the safety of autonomous vehicles. Waymo reported on the first 1.6 million kilometers of its “passenger-only” trips, which included two reportable-to-police collisions (no injuries) and 18 minor crashes, nearly half of which involve a human-driven vehicle hitting a Waymo. discontinued, and the company cautioned against direct comparison with human drivers due to the dearth of corresponding datasets. Cruz, on the other hand, claims that its robot taxis had 53% fewer crashes and 73% lower apparent probability of injury than human drivers of a typical San Francisco ride-hailing car during its first 1.6 million kilometers of autonomous travel.

My most recent Cruise ride, while not perfect, was close enough to the experience of riding with a responsible human driver that for a moment I forgot I was in a robot taxi. It is enough that these cars are programmed to abide by traffic laws and speed limits automatically so that they appear to us to be safer in their movement than a large proportion of human drivers on the roads.

The need to study the impact of robotic taxis on cities and society

We can't confirm whether robot taxis are ready for widespread deployment, and we can't even say what criteria are used to measure that readiness, But all factors indicate that robot taxis will continue to advance unless there is a significant shift in momentum for some reason. An economic shock, apocalyptic tragedy, or a sudden political shift is enough to spark a broader conversation about its impact on cities and society.

Cruz and Waymo are close to getting a license to offer a 24/7 commercial robot taxi service in practically all of San Francisco, and this could make a huge economic impact on traditional taxi drivers and ride-hailing drivers, and that goes for every other city in which they operate. Cruz and Waymo. The exit of professional drivers from the job market due to automation is not a theoretical idea anymore; Rather, it turned out to be a very realistic possibility in the near future.

Robo-taxis can also influence transportation policies dramatically and immediately. This technology could make automated transportation so easy and cheap that people will use more cars; This leads to increased congestion and undermines the status of public transport. San Francisco officials fear that traffic will be further deteriorated by an increase in the number of robot taxis that park themselves in lane two, lacking the situational awareness to decide where and when to stop.

The advent of robot taxis has raised pressing questions about labor and transportation policies that will sooner or later have to be answered. Should workers be protected from being replaced by automation technologies, or compensated when this happens? And is it appropriate to unleash cars in the busiest and most transportable areas of cities? Should we continue to exempt electric cars from the fuel taxes that fund road maintenance?


As technology advances, policies must evolve rapidly to keep up. However, in order to be able to achieve this, the public must have a clear perception of the speed of expected future developments.