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Robotaxis in San Francisco: How to make the most of your ride

Reporter Matthew Kupfer peeks out of the window of a driverless Waymo car on Fulton Street. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

When I got a chance to test out a Waymo self-driving taxi, I did what any sensible person would: Kill two birds with one stone.

Soon, my wife and I were summoning one of these eerie, white driverless vehicles outside The Standard’s office and heading to Europa Express, an Eastern European grocery store on La Playa Street, to stock up on Slavic delicacies. Because priorities.

That drive, which took us from the heart of SoMa to the far western reaches of the city, allowed us to watch one of San Francisco’s most boggling—and controversial—technologies navigate intersections, stop signs, roadwork and blocked roads. We also got a chance to witness the baffled, amused and occasionally hostile reactions of local pedestrians.

But the shock may soon wear off. 

If the California Public Utilities Commission votes on Aug. 10 in favor of expanding autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, more and more people will get a chance to experience a robotaxi.

So how can you best utilize an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco? Here’s what The Standard’s reporters have learned from testing them out.

Plan Ahead

This isn’t your daddy’s Uber. 

Autonomous vehicles offer a smooth ride, but they differ in several notable ways from their human-piloted counterparts: They generally follow traffic rules to the T, don’t speed and avoid certain complex maneuvers.

To call a Waymo or a Cruise, you need to download the companies’ apps. Currently, both apps are in trial mode, meaning you need an invite code to use them. If you have that, calling a robotaxi is very similar to summoning an Uber or Lyft.

But there are a few differences. After your Waymo arrives, you use the Waymo One app to unlock the door. Then you climb in and hit a button—either in the app or on a screen inside the vehicle—to start the ride.

Bear in mind: When a human taxi driver stops for you on a one-way street and you’re standing on the other side, they will often try to cross over—even if that move isn’t entirely legal. A punctilious autonomous vehicle won’t. You have to cross the street.

If you want to travel by Waymo or Cruise, be sure to plan extra time for your trip. Autonomous vehicles generally drive slower than a human-piloted Uber, Lyft or cab.

A Waymo makes two turns during a drive across San Francisco. The robotaxi may avoid fancy maneuvers popular with human drivers, but it offers a smooth ride to passengers. | Matthew Kupfer/The Standard

Additionally, wait times vary. In SoMa, the Waymo we hailed arrived after about five minutes. But a colleague who called one in the Panhandle had to wait a half-hour. When she tried to call one later in the day from SoMa, the Waymo app initially informed her all the cars were busy, before giving her a 43-minute wait.

If you’re running late, an autonomous vehicle may not be your best option.

No Fancy Moves

You’re behind the wheel of a car and waiting to make a left turn at an intersection. Suddenly, your green left-turn arrow turns yellow. What are you going to do? 

If you’re next in line, you will probably enter the intersection and turn.

Our Waymo didn’t do that. It stopped and waited for another light cycle.

A driverless Waymo car stops instead of turning on the yellow arrow at the intersection of Guerrero and Duboce streets. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Similarly, in situations where a human driver would use a driveway to turn around or make a U-turn, the autonomous vehicle will usually route the trip to avoid that maneuver. Sometimes, that means simply driving around the block. This can add time to your trip.

It also means the car won’t always choose the optimal route recommended by Google Maps, another factor that can add minutes to the trip.

Surprising Maneuverability

Despite all its robotic rule-following, you shouldn’t doubt an autonomous vehicle’s ability to navigate unusual road conditions.

When our Waymo came upon a moving truck double-parked and facing the wrong direction, I thought it would get confused, put on its emergency lights and stall on the road. Instead, the Waymo simply went around the van, briefly sliding into the opposite lane, which was empty.

A self-driving Waymo robotaxi navigates its way around a double-parked moving van that is facing the wrong way. | Matthew Kupfer/The Standard

Enjoy the Pedestrian Reactions

Some people love 'em. Some people hate 'em. And some people pop traffic cones on the hood to disable 'em

Either way, the pedestrian reactions to autonomous vehicles are part of the fun of riding one.

After buying a jar of cured herring (delicious with fried potatoes and a shot of vodka) and a bag of Ukrainian candy at Europa Express, we called another Waymo. As we pulled out of La Playa Street, an older Eastern European immigrant watched the car with a look of awe. 

At another point in the journey, a group of tourists eyed the car with interest. A woman pointed out the driverless Waymo to a toddler.

A man gestures toward a driverless Waymo car outside Openhouse SF, an LGBTQ+ senior living center on Laguna Street. He also threw his cigarette butt in the direction of the car. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Not everyone was excited. Outside the Openhouse SF community for LGBTQ+ seniors, one man gestured angrily at our Waymo and eventually hurled a cigarette butt in its direction.

But even that couldn’t spoil the odd fun of watching that steering wheel turn on its own accord as the streets of San Francisco rolled by.