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Waymo vs. Cruise: Which handles San Francisco streets better?

Source: Video by Mike Kuba

Much ado has been made of San Francisco’s major autonomous vehicle companies, Google-owned Waymo and General Motors-backed Cruise. But as regulators prepare to vote on the unlimited expansion of robotaxis in San Francisco, only a fairly limited subset of residents can say they’ve actually taken a ride in a self-driving car. 

The Standard wanted to know how these two Bay Area-based autonomous vehicle companies fared against each other in a ride from the city’s southern neighborhoods up to the tip of Pacific Heights. From car design to the feel of the ride to the names of the vehicles themselves, the two self-driving rides couldn’t be any more different.

The Slowest Race on Earth

It’s one thing for a robotaxi to get through an empty street; it’s another to ask it to navigate construction, pedestrians, bicyclists and Muni trains. We wanted to test the robotaxis’ ability to drive through multiple types of terrains and ordered routes from a Safeway in the Sunset—where construction has closed off lanes along Taraval Street—to Alta Plaza Park up in Pacific Heights. 

Cruise and Waymo offered very different routing options, with the Waymo choosing a more direct route along busier roadways and Cruise opting for a more circuitous route. 

The Standard’s ride with Cruise involved actually going in the opposite direction for a spell. It also started with a short walk. Instead of arriving at the Safeway, the Cruise app directed us to a pickup spot a couple blocks away on 19th Avenue. It pulled over on the busy street, leading to a few honks and dirty looks from frustrated drivers as we got situated in the vehicle. 

Instead of driving straight through Golden Gate Park, Cruise decided to go east on Lincoln Way before taking a strange southward sojourn on Stanyan Street, turning around in Cole Valley and heading back north. The full drive time from pickup to drop-off? Thirty-four minutes, nearly twice the time it would have taken in a personal vehicle. 

A Cruise spokesperson said vehicles attempt to “optimize for the safest route” based on factors like traffic, real-time feedback from the fleet, roadblocks and closures.

An exterior view of the Cruise lot on 10th Street in San Francisco. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Riding in a Waymo felt almost like taking a normal Uber, awkward rideshare driver talk not included. It arrived right in front of the Safeway, took us on a slow and careful ride—not unlike driving with your grandmother—and felt surprisingly smooth for a robotaxi. The car made only one jerky turn and successfully passed a delivery truck stalled on Masonic Avenue. 

Waymo took The Standard on what appeared to be the most efficient driving route through congested roads such as 19th Avenue and Fulton Street along Golden Gate Park. 

“We are constantly evaluating and adjusting our dynamic routing to help riders safely and conveniently get where they’re going by balancing for road and traffic conditions,” Waymo spokesperson Chris Bonelli said in a statement. 

All told, from pickup to drop-off, the Waymo took roughly 27 minutes to drive from Taraval Street to Alta Plaza Park—roughly seven minutes slower than an average car or Uber driver, but certainly faster than public transit. 

But if you’re truly in a pinch, right now Cruise might offer a faster overall experience. Waymo’s cars feel like they drive faster and along a more direct route, but there appear to be far fewer of them circulating in the city, meaning wait times can stretch well past a half hour. 

Cruise’s relative ubiquity throughout San Francisco means most riders can get a ride within 10 minutes. Waymo, by comparison, took 20 minutes to arrive at the Safeway on Taraval Street.

Cars, Apps, Hardware and Games 

At first glance, Cruise cars are most readily identifiable, with their blood orange stripes and clunky rooftop robotaxi gear. They also all have cutesy names, often related to food. This time, we were riding in Banana. 

That fun aesthetic also filters into the actual riding experience: On the back of the seats are tablets that offer options to change the music and the mood, and riders are offered a number of trivia games about the music, movies, sports and sights of San Francisco. So if you’re trying to answer a question about Mrs. Doubtfire while in a self-driving car, you only really have one option. 

Waymo cars offer a slightly sleeker experience: Set in a mid-sized Jaguar SUV, the all-white car—sans cutesy name—blends in slightly better with other cars on the road and relies on minimal branding. The inside experience is less tailored toward games and trivia, but riders can use one of two middle consoles to control music, routing options and customer service. The free face masks, hand sanitizer and safety pamphlet were a nice touch. 

Waymo also feels less like a fish bowl: Their car’s windows appear slightly more tinted than Cruise windshields—a welcome reprieve from all the glares and honking coming from AV-opposed San Franciscans. 

The robotaxis’ design feels like a reflection of their divergent marketing strategies: Waymo looks and feels like a luxury car; Cruise, with its more light-hearted naming strategy and entertainment options, appears to be marketed towards a younger clientele. 

All car transit options—Ubers, taxis, Waymos and Cruises—charge roughly the same price for a ride. But public transportation via BART or Muni will always provide a cheaper route. Better yet, walking on foot is free. 

What’s Next? 

Autonomous vehicles are quite possibly San Francisco’s most controversial new technology. In recent months, robotaxis have prompted public outrage by interrupting public emergencies, rolling over a fire hose during a house blaze and, in another instance, narrowly missing a light-rail car. Another killed a small dog. A cohort of anti-autonomous vehicle activists in San Francisco has even taken to placing traffic cones on the hoods of Cruise and Waymo robotaxis to literally stop their progress.

READ MORE: We Spoke to One of the Activists ‘Coning’ Cruise and Waymo Robotaxis in San Francisco

It’s not uncommon to see drivers trying to speed past cautious Cruise cars and slow-going Waymos; many will honk at AVs that stall on the roads, and one of our reporters narrowly avoided getting hit by an angry driver during a Cruise ride this week. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has twice delayed a scheduled vote for unlimited expansion of Cruise and Waymo robotaxis in San Francisco amid growing opposition from local public officials and a rash of protests. The vote is currently slated for Aug. 10.

Editor’s note: The description of the types of names Cruise gives to its cars has been clarified.