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We took a San Francisco cabbie for a driverless car ride. He had opinions

As part of The Standard’s series on the rising trend of driverless cars in San Francisco, we took longtime San Francisco taxi driver Barry Taranto on a ride—his first—to see what he thought about the experience. | Source: Video by Jesse Rogala and Mike Kuba

Barry Taranto doesn’t feel any immediate threat to his livelihood from the rise of the driverless car. But this long-time San Francisco taxi driver is still angry that they exist.

As a board member of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, Taranto has been an outspoken critic of Uber and Lyft. But now, he finds himself again besieged by brand-new technology on the road.

“The city is a mess,” Taranto said. “Adding these autonomous vehicles is going to cause more congestion.”

As part of The Standard’s series on the rising trend of driverless cars in San Francisco, we took Taranto on a ride—his first—to see what he thought about the experience. We planned our route from Dolores Park to Outer Richmond using Waymo, one of the major players in the autonomous vehicle industry.

“I’m interested to see how this particular vehicle handles different situations,” he told The Standard, “especially during the daytime.”

A Smooth Ride, but a Slow One

After waiting a longer-than-expected half hour, the Waymo arrived, parking in the middle of Dolores Street. We had to run to it.

After getting in, Taranto clicked the “Start Ride” button on the screen from the back seat, enjoying the large space of this luxurious Jaguar I-PACE electric vehicle.

San Francisco taxi driver Barry Taranto enters a Waymo autonomous vehicle for the first time and remarks on the experience of having no human driver in charge.

Amid busy daytime traffic, the ride was a bit challenging, but the small SUV traveled smoothly and slowly through San Francisco’s complex topography.

“I've dealt with [passengers] getting upset that you are driving so cautiously that you're stopping at practically every light,” Taranto said, criticizing the Waymo’s slow speed— most of the time under 30 mph. In San Francisco’s dense area, many streets have a 25 to 30 mph legal speed limit.

However, Taranto admitted to a feeling of extra safety.

In all, the ride took about 27 minutes. Still, Taranto said he knew a better route and a taxi ride would save about seven minutes. An expert on getting around town, his critiques were specific, even including the car’s choice of lanes.

“Because I am a human,” he said. “I have more experience than what's been programmed so far in the vehicle.”

The Irreplaceable Human Driver?

Taranto has a lot of opinions about driverless cars, many of which echo others’ complaints. They interfere with other users of the roadway, like Muni buses and other forms of public transit. They impede on emergency vehicles. They can’t assist passengers with disabilities. 

“There are a lot of situations it just can't really handle,” Taranto said.

From his perspective, autonomous cars are missing an irreplaceable benefit: that of a human driver, someone passengers can interact with and who knows the city. If a tourist opens the door to his car and starts asking questions, Taranto said, he can direct that person where to go. 

“[The driver] may know information that they can share with you,” he said. “So a lot of the time, the experience of being in a cab is actually having verbal communication.”

Taranto, who holds a journalism degree, also protested that media have been calling driverless cars “robotaxis,” because he thought that “taxi” is a specific term referring to a transportation service that can be flagged on the street, have a top light that says “TAXI,” have in-vehicle meters that passengers can see and accept various forms of payment.

Deciding the Future

Taranto said that the taxi workers union is planning some protests and rallies before the California state's decision in August on the regulation of driverless cars.

He expected it would take another 10 years to see if the taxi industry would be replaced. He estimates that there are about 2,000 taxi drivers in the city.

San Francisco taxi driver Barry Taranto shares his assessment of the Waymo autonomous vehicle after riding across the city in one for the first time.

Waymo declined to comment for this story. However, the company has been working with first responders on training and education. An open letter signed by many accessibility advocacy and senior services groups, including San Francisco’s Self-Help for the Elderly, has also urged the state to approve Waymo’s expansion.

Being asked if there is something he likes about the driverless car, Taranto laughed.

“It doesn’t have road rage,” he said. “It is not cursing other drivers.”