Although I’ve had access to Cruise’s self-driving cars (or “autonomous vehicles” in tech lingo) for some time now, I hadn’t actually gone for a ride in one until Thursday evening. That’s because Cruise had only rolled out a few select neighborhoods in San Francisco for me up until that point.
Now with access to most of the city — albeit only at night — I decided I had to try out these new driverless cars for myself. After a ride in a car nicknamed “Banana,” here are my initial thoughts.
The app and arrival
Requesting a ride in the Cruise app will be familiar to anyone who’s used Uber or Lyft. Cruise only has one type of vehicle and there’s no option to pay extra to skip the line, so there’s not a lot to it. Additionally it’s currently free so there’s no payment options at all.
The app asked me to walk a few paces away from the street corner I was standing on. This is typical of the other apps, but unfortunately it had me walk to an area with a weak cell signal. It did work, though the app complained about it a couple times.
My first thought for a destination was Union Square although it turns out Cruise doesn’t go there at all for now. So I picked the Ferry Building. The closest dropoff point was near Embarcadero Center.
To get in the car, you have to press a button on the app to unlock the doors. I found this unintuitive but it worked fine.
Inside the car
Only the back seats of the car are available for passengers. The front doors remain locked and there’s a transparent plastic partition to keep anyone from climbing into the front. This feels a little claustrophobic, like being transported in the back of a police car.
Two large touchscreens on the backs of the front seats display information about the ride, and offer a trivia game and radio options for entertainment.
The inside of the car was clean enough, although the air was very stale. Not sure why they couldn’t have had the vents blowing a little, or at least an option for that.
For the most part the ride was uneventful. However it did make a few mistakes, which I’ll list here from bad to worse:
- After getting “boxed in” to the left lane by a double parked car in the right lane, instead of changing lanes back it decided to continue in the left lane even when it became a left turn lane, incorporating the left turn into a new route.
- While executing a left turn, it failed to yield to a car in the opposite direction turning right on to the same street.
- Attempted to pull over when it heard a siren, but aborted the lane change and briefly stopped in the middle of the street.
- Instead of waiting for a bus to pull out of the bus stop, it tried to make a semi-blind right turn around the bus — only to encounter an obstacle and both serve and slam on the brakes to avoid it.
While my experience wasn’t a perfect ride, we don’t live in a perfect world. I think it would be more fair to compare it to a human driver. On that metric it seems okay as its worst decisions were performed at low speeds.
At the same time many of its mistakes could be chalked up to behaving differently than a human driver, which is potentially a problem as it may confuse human-driven cars.
Who is this for?
As the Cruise vehicle drove around avoiding buses, other cars, motor scooters, skateboarders, etc. I had to wonder if we really need yet another type of vehicle on the streets. Aren’t there enough ways to get around already?
Of course, autonomous vehicles are not for you. They’re for companies like Uber who don’t want to have to pay for human drivers. After a decade of commercial development these will have to replace a lot of human drivers to be worth the cost.
After the ride I got to thinking about how I would describe “Banana” if they were a human driver. My first thought was that it seemed like a student driver based on its timidness when it came to changing lanes. Maybe it’s just me but when I was learning to drive I struggled with changing lanes for a while.
Another observation is that when the AI couldn’t figure out what to do, it often stopped the car briefly and then jolted back into action. This reminds me of the way some people train their dogs with those shock collars.
While I don’t want to understate what Cruise has achieved from a technical perspective — and it is a massive achievement — I’m not sure I’m comfortable with 3,000 pound metal boxes being driven around my neighborhood by the AI equivalent of a student driver wearing a shock collar.