Late one September evening in San Francisco, my colleague Cade Metz shuffled into the back seat of a car operated by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors. He sat behind plexiglass, as if in a New York taxicab, able to peer only into the driver’s seat of the Chevy Bolt.
“The front seat of a Cruise car looks like the front seat of any car,” Cade wrote, “except there is no one in it.”
A Times technology reporter in San Francisco, Cade recently wrote about his first ride in a truly driverless car, an experience “by turns spooky, impressive, perplexing and a little stressful.” Though Cade has for years reported on the development of autonomous vehicles, test drives usually have so-called safety drivers who ride along and can take over in case something goes wrong.
Not this one.
Through the streets of San Francisco, the Cruise car changed lanes on its own, waited for pedestrians to cross the street and wove around vehicles stalled in the middle of the street. The vehicle occasionally got confused, and, at one point, its driving upset a pedestrian so much that the person flipped it off.
“It was kind of like being in the car with my 16-year-old daughter when she was learning to drive — but more unnerving because my daughter could at least respond to my moments of panic,” Cade wrote in his article.
Creating driverless cars is challenging and expensive, and there are few places in the world where such technology is actually in use. Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company, operates a truly driverless service in the suburbs of Phoenix, but the wide and relatively empty roads there are far easier to master than the congested streets of San Francisco.
For that reason, the technology rolling out in the Bay Area is fairly restricted. Though Cruise says it offers a commercial driverless car service, the company operates only about 30 vehicles and it’s difficult for an average customer to try one out, Cade told me.
Those vehicles don’t go faster than 30 miles per hour, and they’re limited to traveling within a small number of neighborhoods in the city. The cars can also be summoned only between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., when traffic is lightest.
“Building a driverless car is incredibly difficult and there are always going to be situations where it encounters a scenario it hasn’t seen before and it hasn’t dealt with,” Cade said. “At the moment, what that means if that you have to restrict the problem, so that you don’t encounter as many of those sticky situations.”
Self-driving 18-wheelers are now on highways in California. But there are still human “safety drivers” behind the wheel. What will it take to get them out?
By 2035, California shoppers looking for new vehicles will have to buy electric.
The rest of the news
College Corps: Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has notched some legislative wins recently, said that he’s most proud of the state’s College Corps, an-under-the-radar program that is just getting started, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Pandemic profits: California’s insurance commissioner has ordered nearly 50 auto insurers to provide detailed information about their claim costs during the pandemic, his latest attempt to compensate consumers he says may have been overcharged, The Associated Press reports.
Drought: As California heads toward another year of drought, experts predict stricter rules, LAist reports.
Madame Wu: Sylvia Wu, owner of the famous Madame Wu’s Garden on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, which used to attract Hollywood’s elite, died at 106, The Associated Press reports.
Cyberattack: The Los Angeles Unified School District has set up a hotline for parents and students after the digital heist of confidential records and files from the district’s computer systems, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Free subway rides: L.A. Metro will offer free rides on Wednesday in honor of California Clean Air Day, NBC Los Angeles reports.
Stockton killings: Five homicides in three months, all in similar circumstances, have left some Stockton residents unsettled, especially after investigators said the killings might be related.
Uber: Santa Clara County is battling with Uber over reporting sexual assault.
Discriminatory calls: Modeled after an ordinance in San Francisco, a proposal that seeks to outlaw unnecessary and discriminatory calls to the police will be taken up by the Berkeley City Council, Berkeleyside reports.
What you get
For $1.5 million: A Mediterranean-style house in Fairfax, a two-bedroom townhouse in West Hollywood and a three-bedroom home in Huntington Beach.
What we’re eating
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Pelle P. Smits:
“My by far favorite Californian route is Highway 17 connecting Santa Cruz and San Jose. Driving away from the Pacific, Santa Cruz’s Ocean Street becomes Highway 17, leading to about 40 minutes — if traffic is light — of winding freeway passing by Scotts Valley and the Lexington Hills through the forested beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains that divide the breezy beach town from the tropical temperatures of the capital of Silicon Valley. Part of the deal, given the freeway’s shaky radio frequencies, is the unavoidable change of channels every couple of minutes. When the clouds start opening up, you can be sure to have reached San Jose, one of the most underrated cities in our beautiful state!”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
The California general election is scheduled for Nov. 8. What do you want to know about the contests or the voting process?
Email us at [email protected] with your questions.
And before you go, some good news
Basketball is a sport predicated on trust. It can build bonds that, in a city like Oakland, might otherwise be found in gangs.
“You could be outside with the wrong people, whole time you could be here, with the right people,” Freddie Barrow, 24, told The New York Times.
Barrow is part of the Oakland chapter of the Association of Midnight Basketball, which provides refuge for young, mostly Black men. When the gym door closes, it shuts out questions about race and policing that have shadowed the city — and, just as important, it offers a chance to build community.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia, Steven Moity and Francis Mateo contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
The post Behind the Story: Navigating San Francisco in a Driverless Car appeared first on New York Times.