What I’ve Learned After 26 Rides In A Driverless Cruise Robotaxi

About three weeks ago, I received an email with an access code for an app that allowed me to take rides in a robotaxi. The app comes from Cruise, a startup that was acquired by General Motors in 2016 for just under a billion dollars. With it, I could now use the Cruise robotaxis, which have been operating in San Francisco since August 2021, for myself. What makes them special is that these robotaxis drive driverless. There is no one in the car when it picks up passengers.

Thanks to a friend who had been given access to the app a few months earlier, I was able to make my first two trips as early as the beginning of July. I reported on that, especially because two coyotes had crossed our path. Meanwhile, with my own app, I continued to cruise 24 times, always taking a friend or two with two exceptions. Cruise driving is a social experience!

Cruise Service Area in San Francisco

These trips, which all lasted between six to eighteen minutes, took place between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., as that is the current time period during which the Cruise robotaxix are allowed to operate driverless. The robotaxi’s service area covered about a third of the city during my 26 trips so far. Starting in November, this is then to be expanded to cover almost the entire city. The period is also to be expanded over time.

Cruise App

The central tool for me was the app that you could download from the American Apple Store to your smartphone. The Cruise app is similar to the well-known ridehailing apps from Lyft or Uber, except that some functions are different. These are necessary to gain access to the car, to change the destination during the ride, to end the ride early, or to call the control center.

Otherwise, it works like you’re used to with other ridehailing services: the app detects your location, you enter a destination, be it an exact address or a pub. The app then searches for a free vehicle, specifies how many minutes away it is, what the vehicle’s name and license plate number are, and calculates the price and estimated journey time.

After each trip, the app asks for a rating, After a general satisfaction in the form of one to five stars, and then more detailed on things like cleanliness of the car or driving comfort, a total of something like eight criteria where you can give a thumbs up or down.

Pick Up

The place where the vehicle picks you up depends on the circumstances of your own location. So I noticed that in some places where the vehicle can’t get there well or is not allowed to stop from a legal point of view, it looks for another place. This can be a few meters before or after, or around the corner, or even just on the next street. Sometimes it even stops in the middle of the street. Places where the vehicle typically stops elsewhere include bus stops (where the vehicle is not allowed to stop and pick up or drop off passengers), bike lanes, driveways, and other blind spots. The best pick-up points to choose as a passenger are at free parking lots (more than one) or corresponding driveways at hotels and restaurants.

As soon as the vehicle arrives, a button appears on the app to open the doors of the car so that the passengers can get in. Because the car does not always stop at the selected pickup point, the robotaxi gives passengers 5 minutes to open the door. Until then, it waits patiently with its hazard lights on.

Interestingly, San Francisco has a law that dictates how and where a cab may board passengers. It is usually not allowed to stop more than 18 inches (just under 46 centimeters) from the curb when doing so, with the exception of circumstances that do not allow for that and the vehicle must stop in a lane. Cruise had been accused in recent weeks of violating these rules in effect in San Francisco. But anyone familiar with San Francisco sees this time and again with cabs and other forms of transportation as well.

Vehicles

The robotaxis use the Chevrolet Bolt, known in Europe as the Opel Ampera, as their basis. This is a battery-electric vehicle that has been heavily modified. For example, the vehicles, which are colored orange and white, have sensors mounted on the roof of the vehicle and on the exterior mirrors. These are lidars, radar, cameras and ultrasound. In the trunk, which is not accessible, are the server racks, which draw attention to themselves while driving by a silent ventilation fan.

The passenger compartment is located on the rear seat, and the driver and front passenger seats are not accessible to app users. Also, the passenger compartment is separated from the front seats by a plexiglass wall, so passengers cannot interfere with the steering system. A total of three screens can be seen in the vehicle, one in the front, one mounted on the backs of the front seats, on which the route is displayed. There you can also select radio stations, answer trivia questions and control air conditioning.

Under the roof of the vehicle, there are two buttons on both the front and rear seats that can be used to end the journey prematurely or to contact the operations center. If you end the journey prematurely – which can also be done via app – the vehicle pulls over at the next safe opportunity. If you contact the operations center, an operator answers the phone and you can discuss your concerns with him. If the door is opened from the inside before the journey is completed, the vehicle stops immediately and switches off the autonomous driving mode and calls the operations center.

Each of the dozens of vehicles has its own name printed on the hood and back. This makes it easier to find the ordered vehicle should several people in the area have ordered one. The names themselves are taken from the world of fauna and flora among others, such as Scarab, Butternut Squash, describe colors such as Cyan, or other words such as Pride. The latter also had a rainbow painted on it, after all we are in the city of San Francisco where the LGBTQIA+ community is particularly strong.

As soon as you enter the vehicle, you are greeted by a male computer voice. A welcome departure from the usually female voices we know from voice assistants, navigation systems or other robots. The selection of female voices for such services has already generated critical voices in recent years who see this as perpetuating the stereotyping of women in servant roles. “Intelligent” systems like IBM’s Watson were given male voices, while systems you buy things from were given female voices. Not so with Cruise – and that’s refreshing.

This voice not only welcomes passengers, it also tells them not to keep hands or objects out of the vehicle when opening the window. Also it announces the driving and asks not to leave or forget things in the car.

The back seat of the vehicle is quite tight, you sit comfortably especially alone or in pairs, with three people it becomes a challenge, especially when putting on the seat belts, where we always had to help each other. But that should change with the future Cruise Origin.

One question I kept getting asked was what the vehicles would do without passengers. Well, they just drive around empty. After all, it’s still a matter of reeling off kilometers and experiencing rare traffic situations. Cruise had published a musically accompanied video for such encounters:

On the 26 trips, there was hardly one where we did not encounter other, mostly empty Cruise. We also saw autonomous vehicles from other manufacturers like Waymo time and again.

The Rides

As soon as you get into the vehicle, close the doors and fasten your seat belts, you’re off. A button appears on the screens and on the app to start the ride. The vehicles move surprisingly swiftly through the traffic, which is clearly not really dense or challenging between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. like during the day or rush hour.

Nevertheless, the confidence with which the vehicle drives, reacts to and avoids traffic situations is surprising. Vehicles parked in the second lane, cars protruding from a driveway, coyotes, pedestrians in the middle of the road, cyclists that it avoids, and even emergency vehicles that it interprets correctly. More on this later.

The ride on all rides felt very safe. It is very smooth and comfortable and did not cause anyone to feel dizzy or anxious. While there was the occasional jerk, it was almost unnoticeable. Once there was even phantom braking, and another time a quick stop because a pedestrian who had a red light wanted to cross in front of the turning car. Don’t worry, nothing happened to the pedestrian. He waited for the green light signal and only then crossed the street.

Recorded Live Stream of a driverless Cruise ride
Recorded Live Stream of a driverless Cruise ride

There have also been some reports of stalled cruises on social media in recent weeks, such as here or here. In fact, I had also experienced some stalled vehicles, three of them in one evening. When trying to call the vehicles, they arrived but then did not leave once we were seated inside. The screens indicated that the autonomous driving mode was off and that the operations center had been called. After this happened three times in a row, I suspected – and this is where the former SAP software developer in me comes out – that these had something in common: they had all broken down on roads that bordered the service area. They seemed to have mistakenly assumed that they would be outside the Service Area, and therefore shut down. But that’s just a guess. Another trip also could not start because the vehicle apparently would not start due to proximity to the curb or some other reason.

Each time, service technicians from Cruise were there within a few minutes to take over the broken-down vehicle and drive it away manually. These are not long out of service, because one of the vehicles I had half an hour later then again as a robotaxi, and this time everything worked then smoothly.

One small observation concerns the doors. It happened several times not only to me, but also to my fellow passengers that they did not close the doors completely and reached for the door handle again. But the robotaxi had already closed the door on its own. It seems that the doors have an electric locking mechanism that allows the vehicle to independently pull the open doors closed. This makes sense, of course, if a forgetful passenger fails to close the door. In such a case, the robotaxi would not be able to continue driving and would have to wait for the service staff to arrive and close the door manually.

Other Road Users

Twice in these trips we encountered emergency vehicles. Once it was a police vehicle coming towards us at high speed while on duty, and another time it was two fire engines parked on a two-lane one-way street on the right with their blue lights on.

In the first case, our Cruise pulled over two blocks ahead to avoid the oncoming police car. This is mandatory in the USA. For Emergency vehicles traveling in their own direction or in the opposite direction on roads where there is no physical separation must be given the right of way by other road users by pulling over and stopping.

In the second case, the Cruise hesitated a bit before driving through the intersection because it first had to figure out if the fire trucks were moving or if they were stopped and it was safe to pass them in the right-hand open lane. After about 5 to 10 seconds, our Cruise took off and passed the two emergency vehicles.

A cyclist we overtook evaded our Cruise with a generous safe distance, definitely more than I would have done. A plus for Cruise and a fact that will please cyclists – of which I am one.

Pedestrians who realize the car is driverless often point to the car with bright eyes and point to their friends. Drivers of other vehicles also look over in amazement and then drive parallel to the vehicle to make sure that what they see is really true.

When my friends and I overheard this in the back seat, we always waved. Once I was even approached by a couple when they saw me getting off the Cruise. They wanted to know everything about the ride and how it felt. They also stated that they themselves had already signed up on the Cruise waiting list as test users.

Some drivers honk at the Cruise when it is in their way or seems too slow. So there was a moment when the Cruise stopped in the lane on Polk to let us out. One impatient driver honked angrily at the car, only to speed along dangerously fast in the oncoming lane to pass it.

Considering that a robotaxi doesn’t drink or do drugs, isn’t tired, isn’t distracted by a conversation or looking at its smartphone, doesn’t get angry when it’s cut off by others, or wants to impress someone, or is otherwise reckless in some way, those alone should be sufficient reasons to prefer this technology to humans as drivers.

Costs

Cruise rides are not free, only the first night once you get the app is. The fare is based on other ridehailing services like Uber and Lyft. In fact, I had a direct comparison one night because after the first ride from Polk Street to Fillmore Street in San Francisco, very light rain started. It was single drops for 1-2 minutes, but that was enough for Cruise to recall all vehicles and shut down service. This has less to do with the skill of the vehicles than the license by the authorities. Currently, Cruise is not allowed to drive in the rain.

Anyway, we had to take a Lyft back to the starting point. With Cruise, I paid $7.98. with the Lyft, on the other hand, there was the following expense: $9.96 + 2.00 tip.The Lyft price of $9.96 was broken down as follows: a $6.05 fare, a $3.60 service charge (including a $0.30 Lyft California Driver Benefits Fee), and a San Francisco Rideshare tax of $0.31.

For lack of a driver and the responsible fees for it, they fall away. And I have not yet tipped the engineers and operators in the background. In any case, the Cruise app does not offer a tip function.

One more thing: if Cruise is now reporting an increased ridership and a profit, then I have not been entirely innocent in that.

How Does It Feel?

How does it feel to ride in a driverless robotaxi? For most people, the first few minutes in a robotaxi are exciting. The heartbeat is elevated, you can’t believe that there is no one sitting in front and that the steering wheel moves as if by magic. Everything is new, attention is divided between the traffic, the steering wheel and the novel experience. After a few minutes, however, it seems completely unspectacular to the newcomers. The vehicle does its job, drives like an average driver, but safer, more cautious, at least not aggressively.

This is often the moment when passengers focus on other details. They start asking questions. What is this button for? What happens in this case? When do you think there will be robotaxis at home? In some cases, we very quickly moved on to other topics that had nothing to do with the robotaxi and technology at all. Passengers quickly forgot that they were in a driverless car. Normality set in.

Some even wondered what the big excitement and fear about this technology was and why it was only now. The tenor is that the rides in a robotaxi are spectacularly unspectacular. Every single acquaintance and friend I took along was absolutely convinced by the technology if not before, then certainly after the ride.

It seems to me to be similar to the situation with electric cars. Over the years, I’ve met a number of skeptics, even outright electric car haters. When they sat in one for the first time and rode along with me, they were immediately won over. Some even bought an electric car themselves a few days later.

This is exactly what happens with autonomous cars. Even during the first drive, this technology is perceived as normality that can be trusted. Admittedly, I and my friends and acquaintances are interested in new technologies and are open to them without not also seeing possible risks. But it didn’t take much convincing, because the technology almost always worked smoothly.

Summary

So what have I learned?

  • The technology is amazingly robust in the current operational domain.
  • After just a few minutes, a ride in a robotaxi appears to be completely normal and spectacularly unspectacular.
  • Both passengers and passersby are taken with the driverless robotaxis and show their delight.
  • The robotaxi is particularly careful around vulnerable road users.
  • Nevertheless, it moves quickly when it can.
  • And it does all this without breaking any laws or rules. The observed rule violations came from human drivers.
  • Some drivers feel provoked by the robotaxis and their driving style and behave aggressively.
  • Just as we had to learn how to deal with traffic around cars, we will have to learn how to deal with robotaxis. Knowing their limitations and new capabilities makes them easier for humans to use.
  • Fares today certainly don’t yet reflect the cost of operation and development, but in the future they could be well below the prices of today’s transportation systems. Estimates range from 80 to 90 percent lower fares or even free rides in some cases.

What else would I like to see? Luxury problems, but because it was asked for:

  • A display in the car that shows me which essential objects the Cruise sees.
  • A charging slot or port for my smartphone.
  • More customizing in general, such as seat settings, music taste, air conditioning and the like. That will probably be evaluated and offered as a service with more frequent driving anyway.
  • Perhaps as a soon-to-be feature intermediate destinations, if you want to drop off passengers on the way home from the bar, or drop off the kids at school first and then drive yourself to the café.
  • The selection of vehicle types, in order to be able to take along a different number of passengers or, or to be able to transport larger purchases, or if one would like to treat oneself to a more luxurious vehicle.
  • That the robotaxis very soon also drive during the day and cover larger regions.

All in all, you can see the result of the team’s years of hard work. It inspires and makes autonomous driving unspectacular. The technology is amazing and makes it seem so easy for the end user. Quite an accomplishment. Those who still believes after a ride in a Cruise that this technology will only be ready in 10-20 years, or not at all, can’t be helped. Thanks to Cruise, the future is already here.

By the way, there are more videos of my rides on my YouTubee-channel.

About me

I am a technology trend researcher and author living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the so-called Silicon Valley, since 2001. I research technology and future trends and describe their potential impact on societies, politics, jobs and the economy. I also write books that address the impact of technology and human behavior.

My next book, coming out November 10, 2022, is about online harassment of women that happens at the hands of toxic men. The book is called CYBERF*CKED and I wrote it for my gender comrades because this is primarily a men’s problem. Even though I know that mostly women will buy it and give it to the men in their lives, I want to recommend it to everyone.

Books on Silicon Valley, the future, artificial intelligence, the exciting topic of innovation, the automotive industry or how not to apologize, in other words all good books from me.
And I want to recommend them to you.
All books are available on Amazon, from the Plassen and Beck publishing houses, or from your favorite bookseller.
They are even available as ebook here, for example.

This article was also published in German.

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