Rodney Brooks

Robots, AI, and other stuff

Autonomous Vehicles 2023, Part III

To finish up this brief series on the reality of autonomous, or self driving vehicles, in 2023 I want to outline my experiences taking almost 40 rides in San Francisco in Cruise vehicles.

I have previously reported on my first three rides in Cruise vehicles back in May of 2022. In those three rides, as with all subsequent rides, there was no driver in the front seat, and the steering wheel turned as though a ghost was sitting there driving.

In 2023 I took roughly three dozen more rides. At first they were part of a special test program that Cruise operated for free. But the last half of them were part of the regular “taxi” service that Cruise started operating, where I paid for them just like one would using Uber or Lyft. For a while Cruise had 300 vehicles operating, but they backed off to 150 after some safety issues.

Here I report what the experience was like.

It was certainly different from using an Uber or a Lyft, and always more uncertain on when and whether I would be picked up, where I would be picked up and where I would be dropped off. The waits were sometimes over twenty minutes for the vehicle to arrive, and sometimes the ride would be cancelled while my promised vehicle was finally in view, and it just cruised on by me, with no explanation on why I had been dumped.

On pick up location I need to point out that during 2022, and most of 2023, the streets of San Francisco were thick with vehicles from both Waymo and Cruise driving around with no one in the driver’s seat. They were collecting data. This followed years of both companies having drivers in their vehicles collecting data, and mapping the entire city.

I would see them every single time I left my house, day or night — but never on my block itself — it is a very difficult block for human drivers to navigate.  Even the human driven data collection Waymos and Cruises never ventured on my block. On one occasion in November of this year I saw four empty Waymo’s drive down my hill–perhaps it was a mistake.  But overall, I do not think the companies have ever mapped my particular block.

Cruise always told me it could not pick me up at my house. Sometimes it told me where to walk to (sometimes as far as two blocks away) and sometimes it asked me to choose.

Earlier in 2023 Cruise vehicles had a hard time dropping me off in a busy street and would continue around the block searching for a place to pull in to out of the traffic. Towards the end of the year, before Cruise shut them down completely, they would stop in traffic in a crowded restaurant area much as an Uber or Lyft would.

But this ease of drop off did not extend to near my house, a leafy, and at night mostly deserted streets neighborhood. They would insist on finding a place to pull into out of the non-existent traffic, sometimes a bit of a hike to get back to my house.

Likewise there was a geographically determined different behavior for pick up. Earlier in the year they would keep driving until they found a place to pull into. That continued near my house throughout the year. One time it was so far further on from where it had told me to wait, that by the time I caught up with car, running to get there I might add, a human was speaking from the car asking me if I was having trouble pushing the unlock button on my app.

However in crowded restaurant areas the Cruise vehicles first became more aggressive about pulling into an empty spot, with stronger braking than a human driver use, perhaps because humans were picking up on the spot being empty earlier than the Cruise vehicles. Later in the year the Cruise vehicles started to imitate human Uber and Lyft drivers and would stop in an active traffic lane to enable a pickup.

In summary, the pick up and drop off behavior of Cruise vehicles got incrementally better in crowded areas throughout the year. The behavior did not change in easier less traffic areas, and was quite substandard compared to human drivers in those areas. Some blocks have not been mapped and are no go areas for driverless ride services. Whether one actually gets a ride or not is rather hit and miss, even if you are prepared to wait a long time.

It is not yet a deployed service. And now Cruise has shut down ride services in all six cities that it had begun operating in, while they thoroughly review safety. And it turns out they were not even autonomous. Human operators were intervening in almost 5 percent of the rides.

Meanwhile, Cruise’s owning company, GM, has announced they are pulling back on their investment of operating cash and other resources. Certainly GM’s driverless car service is at risk.

And also it turns out the cars are not autonomous or driverless.  See my upcoming new year report.

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