“Hello, Tripp,” said a disembodied female voice over the speakers of a driverless cab that was about to collect a fare near the colorful Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies.
“This experience might feel futuristic,” the voice said. “Please do not touch the steering wheel or pedals while driving. If you have any questions, you can find information on the Waymo app, such as how we keep our cars safe and clean.”
For several years, the hilly and congested streets of San Francisco have served as a test track for hundreds of self-driving cars from Waymo, an autonomous vehicle company owned by Google parent Alphabet, and Cruise, a General Motors company.
The New York Times sent three reporters across town to test Waymo's robotic taxis. I started at Alamo Square, home of the famous Painted ladies houses. Yiwen Lu started her ride on Marina Greenalong San Francisco's north waterfront, and Mike Isaac began his ride near historic Mission Dolores Basilica.
Our destination: The Beach Chalet restaurant, where San Francisco's Golden Gate Park meets the Pacific Ocean. Waymo only offers limited rides to downtown San Francisco, so we tried to simulate the experience a tourist might have while cruising around the city in a driverless cab.
Waymo's robotic taxi rides began as tensions escalated over San Francisco's self-driving cars. City officials and activists are urging state officials to reverse or slow down Waymo and Cruise's plan to charge riders 24 hours a day for trips around the city.
Last week, a driverless cruise car collided with a fire engine rushing to an emergency. Another cruise vehicle got stuck in the wet cement. The week before, several Cruise cars blocked traffic in the North Beach neighborhood of the city. On Friday, state regulators asked Cruise to halve the number of vehicles it operates.
Waymo had fewer issues that would make headlines. In May one of His cars hit and killed a small dog. A few years ago, A driverless Waymo car with a human safety driver operating the steering wheel manually struck a pedestrian who had to be taken to the hospital. The company has been collecting fares in the Phoenix area for several years and now has a fleet that travels approximately 200 miles throughout the area, including to and from the airport.
Waymo's app, Waymo One, looks and works the same as Uber's. Riders enter their destination and get an estimated wait time for a ride. Once you've entered your requests, the company will dispatch its fleet of 250 white Jaguar vehicles, which it operates across the city. The cars are incredibly expensive, equipped with high-tech sensors and cameras, and are valued at up to $200,000.
Each of us waited five to ten minutes for a ride.
The Waymo experience can be confusing for a first-time visitor. When the car pulled up to the side of the road next to the Painted Ladies, I grabbed the doorknob. But the handles were flush with the door and wouldn't open. I had to click the unlock button in the app. When I did that, the handles shot out of the door and I was able to climb inside.
My ride was so smooth that the novelty gradually wore off and a trip into the future became another trip across town. The car was precise and deliberate, but without the flexibility or interaction one would expect from a human driver. There was a break for pedestrians and space was made for emergency vehicles.
Like my ride, Yiwen's journey was downright sleepy. The car was dry and precise. He never exceeded the legal speed limit, used his turn signal before changing lanes, and dodged pedestrians at crosswalks that speeding motorists might ignore.
However, Mike's robotic taxi was more aggressive. It jumped off the start line with more acceleration than he expected. He was amazed as the car drove through several densely populated neighborhoods before landing on the driveway to the beach.
Approaching a construction project blocking the right lane, my Waymo slowed from 30 mph to 20 mph and turned on the turn signal to switch to the left lane. Moments later, the car was parked at a stop sign as a fire engine with flashing lights approached. The Waymo hesitated. A brief explanation was displayed on a touchscreen: “Give way to emergency vehicle.” It waited for the fire truck to pass to accelerate through the intersection.
The steering wheel spun and spun on its own. I wondered what would happen if I touched the wheel, so I grabbed it as the Waymo transitioned from lane to lane. The car ignored me and drove on.
Yiwen's journey began with a complication: an accident in which the Waymo was not involved, next to a parking lot in Marina Green. Police cars blocked part of the lane, causing the Waymo car to quickly change route. Instead of taking the main road, the Waymo car pulled onto a nearby residential street and skirted the scene of the accident.
The cars all reacted quickly to pedestrians. My rideshare patiently waited at intersections and crosswalks while people walked their dogs, drank coffee, and rode their bikes toward Golden Gate Park.
But at the top of a hill, Mike's car spotted a man crossing the road at a designated crosswalk, but slowly crept along while it waited for him to get to the other side. The pedestrian gave the car – and Mike – an annoyed look.
The cars offer more bells and whistles than an Uber or a cab. The touchscreens in the rear seats are equipped with a button to turn on the music. There are a number of playlists to choose from, including jazz, classical, rock, and hip-hop.
Mike wanted to listen to a punk band called Armed and tried to find the group's music through the Waymo app. To do this, however, he had to download an app called Google Assistant and request a specific song by speaking into his phone's microphone. His first attempt produced the wrong band and his second produced a live version of the song he wanted.
Instead of taking the most direct route to the beach via a congested road, my Waymo crossed Golden Gate Park and down a less congested road, but that added a few minutes to the journey. It wobbled most of the way at 29 mph – a mph below the top speed – and left other drivers behind. At one point, it stayed behind a car for a few minutes, waiting to make a left turn rather than switching to the right lane to avoid the vehicle.
My Waymo pulled into a parking lot six minutes later than originally predicted. It glided across the parking lot to a small, empty space where the map on the touchscreen showed a circle. As soon as it entered the circle, it stopped.
“You are here,” said the woman. “Please make sure everything is clear before leaving.”
Stepping out of the car was filled with the meditative electronic music that greeted me at the start of the drive. Mike arrived shortly after me.
Yiwen's car was less direct. At the beginning of her trip, she was told that it would take her a two-minute walk to get to the restaurant from her drop-off point. The car reminded them when it arrived and encouraged them to use the app to guide them on their way to the Beach Chalet.
Waymo rides were affordable, ranging from $18 to $21, about the same as an Uber. It will be years — if not decades — before Waymo recoups the billions of dollars it has invested in its service. Though there's no driver, every trip is assisted by staff at a Waymo location who can be summoned if a car gets into trouble.
But that's Waymo's problem. It's easy for the rest of us to forget that nobody is behind the wheel of the robotic taxis. The only reminder comes when you start thanking the driver before you get out of the car. One look at the empty front seat reminds you that you are all alone.