After my report after the first 26 rides in driverless Cruise robotaxis, I made another 24 rides and observed some new details. I would like to report about them. Except for two times, I always rode with other people whom I invited to join me. As I said before, riding a Cruise is a social experience and so far, I have taken a total of about 90 people with me.
Already in the first report I had talked about two encounters with emergency vehicles and how the Robotaxi behaves. This time there were two other, different encounters. Once we came to an intersection and heard the siren of a police vehicle just ahead. The Cruise, which had green, entered the intersection, but immediately recognized the emergency vehicle by the traffic signals, crossed the intersection completely, and immediately stopped at the side of the road with this message on the display:
After the police vehicle left the intersection, Cruise switched back to normal driving mode after a few seconds and continued on.
In a similar situation with a police vehicle, it was gone so quickly that the screen in the Cruise displayed this message for just a second and then moved on.
An interesting experience was when entering a traffic light controlled intersection we had green, but in front of us coming from the opposite traffic a manually controlled vehicle took the right of way from us and turned left. The Cruise came to a safe stop, stopping in the first of the three lanes of the intersecting road. The vehicle following the one that gave us the right of way also decided to turn left. In other words, two human-driven vehicles had taken the right of way from us. We had the green light and were about to drive through the intersection, while the two vehicles coming from the opposite direction wanted to turn left and both took the right of way from us.
Anyway, we ended up in the first lane of the crossing road and our light turned red. Cross traffic was now starting to move (a three lane one way street with traffic coming from the left) and the Cruise was trying to cross the intersection. Since the Cruise vehicles do not seem to be currently backing up, it had to move forward. Anyway, after a few seconds, the human drivers of the cross traffic all stopped and the Cruise safely crossed the intersection.
Differences in Software
Having been on the road with quite a few vehicles, making up to 9 trips in one night with 4-5 different vehicles, alternating between two to three destinations – we kept leaving from Harry’s Bar on Fillmore Street and entering Amelie’s Bar on Polk, the Lush Lounge, or an address on Haight Street as the destination, only to change destinations mid-trip to get back to Harry’s Bar – I saw differences in how each of the vehicles tried to reach their destinations. They did not always choose the same routes. Also, some of the vehicles appeared more hesitant than others, for example, in approaching and finding the pickup location. It should be noted that I always tried to start at the same place at Harry’s Bar to make it easier for the vehicle to approach.
An example may illustrate this. In front of Harry’s Bar there is now one of these outdoor dining areas on the former parking spaces. On the left side of it there is a bus stop, on the right side parking spaces. The latter are at this time only sparsely or not at all occupied. I always wait there to order a vehicle and that is typically where they arrive. One vehicle stopped at the height of the bus stop – one the driving lane, not the bus stop area, only to continue to the usual parking spaces after a few seconds.
Because of this different behavior, I suspect that the vehicles had different software versions installed. It may also be that the calibration of the hardware was slightly different and could have led to this different behavior.
The choice of route seems to depend on some parameters and circumstances. Although, as already mentioned, we always drove back to the starting point, the vehicle often did not choose the direct route on the side of Harry’s Bar as the dropoff location, but drove into a side alley only to arrive on the opposite side.
Also, I noticed that on some streets, vehicles do not turn left. Specifically, on four-lane streets – two in each direction – that does not have a median barrier such as a green strip, but only a double barrier line. Thus, on a four-lane road with a median barrier, vehicles turn dutifully left at a traffic light-controlled intersection, such as on Divisadero, but not on a road such as California Street.
Four-lane roads with different lane closures (image left Divisadero, right Sacramento)
The vehicle avoided California Street like the plague, choosing instead to travel one block over two-lane Sacramento Street, which had one lane in each direction.
Another message we observed after getting out was “Benitoite reported a collision” (Benitoite was the name of our Cruise Robotaxi). It stopped and had its hazard lights on.
I suspect that when we got out and took the obligatory selfie behind the vehicle, we had touched the vehicle near a sensitive sensor and it reported a supposed collision. Thus, it could be (just a guess) that the Cruise robotaxis have additional (touch) sensors that normal cars do not have built in.
In any case, the vehicle stopped and did not go any further. I did not have time to observe whether it was picked up by service technicians or not. Speaking of them…
Once I saw one of the Cruise vehicles parked on the side of the road. This is unusual in that the Cruise, when they don’t have passengers, also drive around non-stop. After all, they have to reel off the miles to learn whether with passengers or not. Also, this prevents vandals from approaching the vehicle so easily and potentially damaging a sensor.
The parked Cruise also contained three people who appeared to be service technicians waiting near popular boarding and disembarkation locations, such as the very Fillmore Street peppered with bars and restaurants, in case one of the vehicles broke down. I also suspect that service technicians are on duty around the various Cruise depots and locations in order to quickly get broken-down vehicles up and running again, because they are at the location within a very short time (1-2 minutes). This could be Cruise’s reaction to the past reports of stalled vehicles, which – according to the reports – had been stalled for a longer period of time.
A curious event was the “hijacking” of a vehicle. I ordered a robotaxi and a vehicle called Tanzania arrived with 3 passengers already in the back seat. The vehicle stopped in front of me and the occupants seemed confused. It had changed their destination during the trip, as they told me in a short conversation. Sure, I had entered a destination, but it had been reflected on their occupied vehicle. It seems to be a software error, because the vehicle was not free but with the three passengers on the way to their destination.
Anyway, the vehicle then continued on its way. On my app, I saw it move away and continue the route towards my destination. After some thought, I decided to end the trip on my app, and the vehicle stopped – according to my app. And after some time my app was again enabled for ordering a new trip. Then I was able to order a new vehicle and Tanzania arrived again, this time without passengers.
My apologies to the three folks I unintentionally spoiled the ride!
If I saw only 2 or 3 Cruise vehicles with passengers but many empty ones just a few weeks ago when I got access to the Cruise app, there are now many more Cruise vehicles with passengers that I see between 10 p.m. and midnight. About a third to half of the vehicles had passengers on board. I can say little about the other times because I usually only check out the vehicles until midnight.
The reaction of my fellow Cruise ride passengers was the same every time. After a first minute of full concentration and excitement, calmness very quickly made itself felt. The rides were described as confident, no different than with a human driver, pleasant braking and starting and no sign of uncertainty of the robotaxi. Some were also surprised at how quickly the vehicle was on the road, moving without hesitation, almost driving like a human (in a positive sense). However, it was always funny to observe how my fellow passengers stared spellbound at the steering wheel, as if it would hypnotize them. It is the only sign in the Cruise that it is not a “normal” ride, but that they are experiencing the future. Once that’s gone, so is the last of the excitement for them.
Interestingly, some of my fellow passengers remarked that they would like to talk to the vehicle. But they didn’t mean conversations like those where you discuss stock and investment tips with the cab driver in New York, the driver tells you his screenplay plot in Los Angeles, or the Uber drives pitches his startup to you in Silicon Valley; no, they wanted to be able to give the vehicle instructions. In the manner of “pull over and let my friend get in” or “change the destination to the following address.”
Since some of the passengers were from automotive companies in Europe, some of them even from the development departments for autonomous driving, their reaction was particularly interesting. They were both shocked and excited. And both because they saw how far the technology has come. One passenger was a member of the German government, who also got to ride in a Waymo (though still with a safety driver) that same day, and was also impressed about Cruise. He was quite clear in his opinion that German automotive experts could now no longer persuade him that this technology would only be ready for use in 10 or 20 years, or never at all.
But I told him that they are actually right in their forecast. This technology will only be available from them in 10 or 20 years, or never at all. From Cruise, it is already here today. As Henry Ford once said:
„Whether You Think You Can, or Think You Can’t … You’re Right“
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This article was also published in German.