(San Francisco) In the darkness of San Francisco, a driverless taxi slows as masked figures surround it like a hunted animal. One of the men puts a cone on the hood: taken aback, the self-driving car turns on its hazard lights and stops in the middle of the lane.
Last week, this curious merry-go-round repeated itself dozens of times in the capital of tech. A group of activists have fun disabling robot taxis at night to protest against their proliferation, a source of friction between the Californian state and local elected officials.
“We think all cars are bad, no matter who or what drives,” says AFP Alex (first name changed), an idealist from the Safe Street Rebel collective, radically pro-pedestrian and pro-bike.
For him, this futuristic vehicle is “not a revolutionary new mode of transport”, just “another way to establish the dominance of the car”.
With simple construction cones, the group manages to immobilize for long minutes the robot taxis of Waymo and Cruise, the two operators authorized in San Francisco, until the intervention of a technician.
Their action accumulates millions of views on social networks and stirs up controversy, just as California is considering allowing these companies to offer a paid service in the city, 24 hours a day.
The California Public Utilities Commission, responsible for overseeing autonomous vehicles, may soon allow Waymo and Cruise to expand their services. They would then work like the Uber or Lyft apps, but without drivers.
A prospect that makes the municipality cringe. San Francisco may be the birthplace of self-driving cars – the first ones started driving there as early as 2014 with a “safety” driver – but she worries about the increase in incidents involving robo-taxis.
For the past year, their experimentation no longer requires having a human behind the wheel in case of unforeseen events. Coming across a Jaguar with no one behind the wheel is part of everyday life, not science fiction.
The total robotization of experimentation is accompanied by inconveniences. Cars stopped on the road, blocking the line of buses or crashing into a crime scene in the face of irate police officers: Cruise and Waymo vehicles are singled out, even if no fatal accidents for humans have been listed.
In early June, a Waymo robo-taxi hit a dog suddenly appearing in the street. The animal is dead.
Days later, San Francisco City Council member Aaron Peskin denounced “the CPUC’s hasty decision to allow a massive increase in (robo-taxis) traffic on our streets.”
The city opposes the State of California, the sole decision maker. This winter, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority sent a letter to the CPUC listing 92 self-driving car crashes.
The controversy seems to be taking hold: the CPUC, which was to authorize Waymo and Cruise at the end of June to extend their services, has twice postponed its decision, now expected on August 10.
Currently, Cruise is only allowed to charge for groceries between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Waymo can’t charge without a human behind the wheel. Under this experimental regime, however, the two companies have retained customers.
Jaeden Sterling thus embarks daily on board a robot-taxi.
“I mostly use them for convenience and safety,” says the 18-year-old.
From the back seat of a Waymo car, he monitors on a screen the vehicles, pedestrians, and other cyclists detected in real time by the software.
This inspires more confidence in him than the “dangerous” driving of many VTC drivers who “are in a hurry because their salary is based on the number of rides they take”.
The untimely stops of autonomous vehicles appear to him rather as a pledge of caution.
Security is also the main argument hammered home by Waymo and Cruise.
Waymo’s robo-taxis have traveled “more than a million kilometres” without “any collision involving pedestrians or cyclists”, the company reminds AFP. As for collisions with vehicles, they “involved rule violations or unsafe behavior by human drivers.”
But some residents remain wary.
“Even if they were really safer, what’s the guarantee that a really dangerous issue won’t show up in production next week?” asks Cyrus Hall, 43.
For this IT engineer, the current incidents are too important to be ignored. Especially since San Francisco serves as an example, in a country where autonomous cars are now arriving in Los Angeles, Phoenix or Austin.
“If they are allowed to become a full-fledged business […] the battle will be much more difficult than ensuring that we have a good regulatory framework now,” he insists.