San Francisco’s Newest Invasive Species: Driverless Cars

In the year 2023, we have officially reached a time in which driverless cars are not some sort of foreign concept that is not even imaginable; they are here and here to stay. For the people of San Francisco, the driverless car is something they are extremely familiar with, as many companies are conducting test drives in the city. Residents have become all too used to looking over at the car next to them and not seeing a face looking back at them. Tourists have grown expectant of the spectacle and hope they will be lucky enough to get a ride from an autonomous car during their trip.

The residents of San Francisco have had countless interactions with these cars and the responses have been mixed.

Recently, many were not too happy to have to share the road with these vehicles, as with the muggy, stormy spring weather, the cars have been dealing with great confusion. One day, there was a small fleet of five Google owned driverless cars that were out on the road when visibility dropped, and they were not prepared to handle it. They ended up trying to pull over in order to wait out the weather issues until they could better compute a way to continue on. However, what the autonomous cars ended up creating was a traffic jam, angering many other drivers.

Driverless car testing is not isolated to San Francisco, but they are dealing with a significantly higher amount of the cars, as they are neighbors of Silicon Valley and typically used as test subjects for new tech. The city has seen testing for these cars going back to 2018, but in the past year they have multiplied tenfold because many of the restrictions on the driving habits of the cars have been lifted. Originally, self-driving vehicles were not given the freedom to drive around in the daytime without having something known as a safety driver present. These were people whose job was to sit in the cars as they drove around and be on standby to take action in case something went wrong with the technology. However, in 2021, Cruise, one of the biggest companies testing right now, went safety driver free and Waymo, another big driverless car producer, followed suit in 2022. Since, there has been an increase in the number of driverless car related incidents, including semi-frequent traffic jams and even the rear-ending of a public bus.

People have likened the driving of a driverless car to that of a student driver: a bit nervous, never going above the speed limit, always coming to a full and complete stop at lights and signs, and immediately hitting the brakes at any slight hint of an obstacle.

To some, this has seemed a bit endearing. One San Francisco resident has gone on record as a non-driver himself, preferring instead to get around via a bicycle. He expressed his appreciation for the caution the driverless cars express, preferring the room they leave for bicycles and regard for the speed limit. Some other San Francisco natives disagree with the fact that they have to be subjected to being the test subject of the vehicle’s driving habits. They have expressed disdain regarding the fact that allowing the testing of the cars was not put up to a vote so that the people had a voice in the matter. Some have also expressed concerns about the vehicles in emergency situations. If the car has not been programed with certain reactions to specific stimuli, they just freeze up or continue on as if there is nothing there. One firefighter had to smash in the window of a driverless car to get the car to stop to prevent it from running over a firehose in use. This was after a separate instance in which another driverless car did run over a firehose in use.

Overall, it’s going to be an adjustment getting used to driverless cars being in the streets. The good news is that each new stimuli that they get introduced to, in the moment may cause an inconvenience, but eventually, will improve the abilities of the car. Each new stimuli leads to new programing and updates to the system, making the cars constantly learn and adjust to make them better for the future. What the future will look like once these self-driving cars fully hit the market is unknown, but one thing is certain: for now, it will continue to be shocking to not see a face behind the wheel.

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