Dude, where’s my driver?

Self-driving cars provide students with alternative transportation late at night. PHOTO BY DOMINIQUE CADENAS CALVO/SF FOGHORN

San Francisco has officially stepped into a Jetson-esque era, welcoming self-driving taxis to the streets with Cruise, and students are some of the company’s first riders.

Cruise is a company pioneering the rise of self-driving car technology. The cameras and sensors on the cars collect data and run it through a software called Webviz, which helps the car determine the most likely series of events and the safest possible set of actions. This semester, USF and Cruise partnered through a “Research Rider Pilot Program” that makes rides available between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. almost everywhere in the city. The rides are free through May 31 to over 1,000 USF students who registered through their Dons email last November. 

The program looks to improve transportation access and create a sustainable business model for the newly emerging market in autonomous vehicles. USF’s partnership has allowed Cruise to test the new technology during a time when there is less traffic, with a demographic that is likely to demand rides late at night.

William Riggs, the program director of the master of public administration program, facilitated the University’s partnership with Cruise as part of the School of Managment’s research in the Autonomous Vehicles and the City Initiative. Riggs sits on the City of Palo Alto’s Planning and Transportation Commission, and co-founded ReStreet.com, an accessible online tool that allows anyone to reimagine streets, whether it be for better pedestrian safety, easier wheelchair accessibility, or a greener design. According to Riggs, autonomous vehicles will provide transportation where public transport may not reach certain areas, or may not be safe at night, and the rides will be potentially cheaper than other ride-sharing companies. 

“One way they’ll change our cities is filling in the gaps within the transportation network,” said Riggs. “The places in San Francisco that have been difficult to get to for a long time, Hunter’s Point [or] the Outer Richmond, we’ll see those places get opened up from a transportation standpoint at a fraction of the cost that it would take to run a bus line.” 

Veronica Mireles, a fourth-year English major, uses Cruise to commute from her late-night classes to her apartment in Bayview-Hunters Point. “If I were to take public transportation, that would take 45 minutes to an hour, so Cruise was just a safer alternative,” she said. Mireles has had late classes before, and because she didn’t feel safe on public transport, she had to spend money on an Uber several times a week. 

According to a survey conducted by Rideshare Sexual Assault Lawyers, a law firm that handles sexual violence cases against Uber and Lyft drivers, 66% of women have felt uncomfortable with their rideshare driver. A 2019 city-wide survey reported that Muni riders ranked their  satisfaction with bus experiences the lowest since 2013, with categories of frequency or availability, cleanliness, and crowd management receiving the worst ratings. In autonomous vehicles, concerns of discomfort with a driver or large crowds are obsolete. 

As full of potential convenience as self-driving cars are, there have been hiccups in the first few months of test driving operations. The San Francisco Chronicle published an interactive map that shows incidents all over the city, including blocking fire hydrants and stopping in the middle of the street. 

Mireles has experienced a few mishaps in the Cruise cars. Once, a car wasn’t available to pick her up, so she had to take an Uber home. Due to the limited number of Cruise cars, there is no guarantee of a ride during high-demand hours. Another time, her Cruise car struggled to navigate a construction zone, extending her ride home. 

Fourth-year computer science major Parsa Rahimi was excited to test Cruise when it became available, but he quickly became disenchanted with the new technology. His negative experiences with Cruise include cars blocking bus lanes and stopping at green lights. One experience particularly stuck out to him. “We were going down Geary and in the middle of the intersection, going 30, the car begins to switch lanes without blinkers and suddenly swerves back into its own lane as another car coming on our left honks and enters its ‘blindspot’ area,” he said. “The car, now ‘scared,’ does the right thing though, and now with blinkers, pulls over to the side, calls Cruise support, and gets picked up by a human driver.” Despite this incident, Rahimi still uses Cruise. “I have never experienced anything worse than what an experienced driver would do,” he said.

Other students like Mecedes Lindsay, a first-year sociology major, reported issues with car availability and drop off. “It’s been pretty up and down with Cruise, sometimes it’s really good, you can get a Cruise really quickly, but last night I got a Cruise and it came quickly but then it kept going around in circles and wouldn’t let me off,” she said.

Rahimi praised the company’s adaptability, however, noting that the cars have improved from their initial state. “It’s interesting to see how routes and pickups have changed and improved over the last month and a half,” said Veronica Lam, a third-year business management major. In the four months of the program thus far, Cruise has sent out four surveys to test-riders asking for feedback, and students are able to rate and review each ride.

“We have [been] able to provide positive feedback as well as some honest limitations of the service” Riggs said. Further student reporting is shaping ridership experiences beyond the car’s driving performance. “Students were some of the first to ask for music in vehicles and Cruise subsequently added music and some quiz games on the in-car touch screens.”

This opportunity has been years in the making. Riggs came to USF in part to create an autonomous vehicle initiative in 2016, quickly became involved with Cruise, and began discussing the possibility of involving students in their work. “The real challenge and one of the really interesting things was convincing the University administration that this was something that was going to be really good for students,” said Riggs.“We had some great partners in the dean of the business school and Opinder Bawa, the CIO, who were huge champions in going to Father Paul and to the Chancellor’s Cabinet and really making a case [for Cruise], saying that this is going to be something really cool, but it’s also something that can really serve students in the nighttime hours where they’re least served by transit,” he said. 

However, the administration did not accept the partnership without consideration of the experimental technology’s uncertainty. “The only real hiccup was legal. The administration spent a lot of time looking at liability and risk to make sure that we kept students safe,” said Riggs. 

Cruise cars have playful names like Soy Milk, Cabbage, and Yogurt. PHOTO BY DOMINIQUE CADENAS CALVO/SF FOGHORN

One of students’ main concerns with Cruise, as with many iterations of AI, is the likelihood that it will replace people at their jobs. “I think a lot about Uber drivers and DoorDash drivers and how a driverless car could easily do that job,” Mireles said. “You’re basically rendering a whole kind of industry useless, however I do think they could be beneficial to people with disabilities or financial hardships.” 

Riggs pushes back against this concern. “It’s increasing the amount of access to jobs for people who really need access to jobs,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between transportation access and access to jobs.” Riggs explained that by lifting some of the demand off the market for labor in transportation — like bus drivers — Cruise will make the lives of those professionals easier, rather than simply replacing them. He also sees job openings in a whole new market created by Cruise. “Whether or not it’s a custodian or an attendant or a customer service agent that’s on call… it’s not a one-for-one job replacement,” said Riggs.

Cruise cars are often treated with a certain amount of bewilderment in the wild. “Sometimes you’ll be riding around, and there are a lot of people taking pictures and videos of the car, it’s pretty funny,” said Mireles. Lam has had similar experiences, but she doesn’t feel like a celebrity when this happens. “You are more of a bodyguard than a celebrity, because the people are looking at the self-driving car,” she said.

USF students have largely adapted to glitches that have come up during the partnership. Rahimi has developed a list of tips for new users: 

“1. Don’t approach your car as it’s pulling up. It thinks you’re a pedestrian and it will avoid you. Just let the app tell you when it’s there.

2. Every car has the name of the vehicle on it. Please don’t use the honk feature to ID your car unless absolutely necessary. It’s disrupting neighborhoods, especially those around campus, and especially late at night.

3. This might be common sense for many but, lock your car once you sit in it, especially if safety is a concern. The car only locks and leaves after you buckle and that might take a while.

4. Cruise support is really friendly. Just press the call button if your car is acting up. Safety first,” he said.

Cruise is hoping to open the service up to the public during all hours of the day and night as they fine-tune the technology and seek permission from local and state officials. 

Cruise is already looking to the next generation of fully autonomous vehicles. The Cruise Origin, which is larger than current Cruise cars, with seats that face each other. To Riggs, the Cruise Origin is the future of robotaxis and public transport. “[The future of Cruise] will be increasingly not in these smaller, lightweight robotaxis, it’ll be in larger shuttle buses,” said Riggs. These “lightweight multi passenger pods” will not offer a lot of the luxuries that other cars afford i.e. soft seats and grab handles inside the vehicle. According to Riggs, most younger passengers are looking only for reliability, convenience, and integrated tech, which autonomous vehicles afford. 

“The best thing students can do is ride and provide input when asked about where and when they are going and the experiences they have,” Riggs said. “Those experiences help shape the business case that will be put forward to policy makers deciding on future deployments.”

The Foghorn will continue its coverage of USF’s partnership with Cruise. 

Corrections and updates: Cruise’s partnership is with the University itself, not Professor Riggs. Webviz is an AI powered decision making engine. There are currently thousands of USF students using the Cruise service at night. During the day, the Cruise service is available to Cruise employees.


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