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Uber vs. Waymo: Which is fastest on San Francisco’s streets?

Forty minutes is a long time to wait for the future of taxis. | Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images ; Isaac Ceja/The Standard

There’s just something fascinating about autonomous vehicles. 

These eerie white chariots of the tech revolution now cruise the streets of San Francisco, ferrying passengers around town or simply circulating through the city, totally empty of people.

Reactions are mixed. Some San Franciscans are excited about the prospect of a driverless robotaxi taking them out for a night on the town. Others oppose the idea. Some are “coning” the Waymo and Cruise cars to protest their presence in the city. 

Regardless, the robotaxis are here. And if the California Public Utilities Commission votes on Aug. 10 in favor of expanding autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, you can expect more of them.

But how do they stand up functionally to the previous “innovation” in hired vehicles: so-called “ride-share” apps like Uber and Lyft? Two journalists from The Standard, Matthew Kupfer and Han Li, decided to find out. 

A driverless Waymo car rolls down Fulton Street. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

They planned an itinerary that took them from Franklin Square in Potrero Hill to Sunnyside Playground, onward to Devil’s Teeth Baking Company in the Outer Sunset, and then to the famous Painted Ladies near Alamo Square. Matt took a Waymo, while Han got an Uber.

The results? If you want to get somewhere quickly, Uber is still the way to go.

Trip 1 

Han: After I called an Uber from Franklin Square, it was a short wait. Two minutes later, my first Uber arrived on 16th Street across from the Potrero Safeway. I got in the car, and we raced down the U.S. 101. Twelve minutes later, I arrived at the beautiful Sunnyside Playground.

The car even had a digital pad for you to play games!

Riders can play games on a tablet during this Uber ride. | Han Li/The Standard

Matt: Despite Han and I calling our rides at the same time, I had a longer wait—10 minutes. By the time my Waymo pulled up on 16th Street, my colleague had successfully identified St. Basil’s Cathedral as a landmark from Russia and was almost at the playground.

My ride took longer than Han’s: Autonomous vehicles like Waymo, so far, avoid the freeway. That meant we seldom drove faster than 25 mph.

Han: Matt finally arrived 15 minutes later, but I was already enjoying my breathtaking views of Sunnyside Playground while waiting for him.

The view from the Sunnyside Playground—it's much nicer than what you see from the window of a Waymo. | Han Li/The Standard

Trip 2

Han: From Sunnyside Playground, we decided to head to the famous Devil’s Teeth bakery near Ocean Beach. I called an Uber and, after a seven-minute wait, my driver pulled up on Teresita Boulevard. It was smooth sailing from there.

Matt: When I called my Waymo, the app informed me I would have to wait 40 minutes for it to arrive. So, after Han left, I spent roughly a half-hour lurking outside a playground waiting for a robot to take me to a pastry shop. How did you spend your Thursday morning?

During that time, two buses passed, several people brought children to the playground, and one of those tiny parking enforcement vehicles pulled up. After a man got out and left a note on a nearby car, I got to wondering: What’s the male version of “meter maid?” Meter man? Meter master? Meter lad? 

By the time I got to “meter bridegroom,” I realized 40 minutes is a long time to wait for a taxi—even one piloted by a robot.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait 40 minutes—just 35, and then my Waymo arrived.

Trip 3

Han: When I arrived in the foggy Sunset, Matt was still waiting in Sunnyside. Because I actually had things to do, I decided not to wait around and headed for the Painted Ladies. 

After a five-minute wait, my third Uber arrived. Eighteen minutes later, I was standing in front of the famous San Francisco landmark. I could only imagine Matt’s frustration over his 35-minute wait for a Waymo.

Matt: A few minutes into my ride to the Outer Sunset, Han was already sending me a photo of the Painted Ladies. It was official: Uber had won the race.

When I arrived at Devil’s Teeth, I decided to check how long it would take me to get to the Painted Ladies. To my dismay, the app told me I would have to wait 25 minutes for a Waymo.

I uttered a profanity and called an Uber to take me back to the office.

The Verdict

Both Uber and Waymo offered smooth rides across San Francisco. But despite the novelty of riding in a driverless vehicle, Waymo just couldn’t keep up with Uber. The driverless cars avoid the freeway, and the wait times can often be long. 

Although Waymo currently is not charging users for rides, its projected prices were also higher than those of Uber.

Here’s how the timing and price of the two options compare.

Waymo’s disadvantages may not be permanent. If the robotaxi companies receive permission to expand, their fleet may also grow, wait times may decrease and prices could go down.

For now, however, if you’re in a hurry, stick to a ride-share app.