Some people see driverless taxis as the future, while to others, they are nothing more than a hi-tech gimmick. But ultimately, it is the passengers who will decide their fate as they have to feel safe and comfortable using the hi-tech taxi.
Whether or not the novelty wears off, there has been plenty of investment into autonomous vehicles and driverless taxis are currently being trialled in America. They are booked through an app, as many conventional taxis are today, and carry private hire insurance. But the ‘wow’ factor is when it appears and there is no one in the driving seat, although, as a BBC reporter found out, the ride was more white knuckle than high-tech.
Earlier this month, the BBC was one of the first media organisations to be given access to Cruise’s driverless taxis in San Francisco. The self-driving taxis have been operating for six months and are currently licenced to pick up paying passengers at night.
The company acknowledges that it is in the early stages of the pilot scheme and that there have been a few teething problems, including minor crashes. Earlier this year, we looked at who is responsible when autonomous vehicles crash and a different approach is being taken in the UK to the US.
A software fault also caused gridlock in downtown San Francisco during the summer when several automated taxis arrived in the same location and stopped.
After hailing the Cruise taxi, BBC reporter James Clayton and a colleague look on in amazement as it pulls up – and, although it is what they are expecting, it takes time for it to sink in that there is no one inside.
A computer voice welcomes them and asks them to put on their seat belts and close the door.
From the outset, James tells of safety fears – both his as well as those of the general public. As the car sets off, it is surreal to see the steering wheel turn by itself, with no one in the front seats.
“It’s really, really weird,” he said. “It doesn’t act like a race track or testing facility. We are in the centre of San Francisco.
“It’s like going on a rollercoaster. That feeling before when you know you’re probably going to be fine, but it’s still weird.”
Among the hairier moments recorded, the driverless taxi pulls out sharply into another lane of traffic to get around a car which has stopped in front of them.
It also appears to struggle to decide what to do as it approaches a bus which is letting off passengers in front of it, and there is traffic beside it.
Although both were navigated safely, it wasn’t a pleasant experience for the passengers.
James said: “This is bad driving. I was ready to love this, but I am definitely nervous. I’m a nervous passenger.”
James acknowledges that Cruise’s taxis are programmed to drive conservatively, something emphasised by Oliver Cameron, Cruise vice-president of product.
“By design we’re making our EV extra cautious when it hits the roads.”
But for James, putting his trust entirely in AI was a concern.
He said: “The system didn’t always put me at ease. In fact, it made me pretty nervous.”
Oliver accepts that while the AI is making human-like decisions, it is a computer and ‘computers make very precise decisions’.
James and his colleague completed his sightseeing journey safely, describing the experience as ‘amazing, surreal scary, all in one’.
He concluded: “There’s not a scratch on us but it did some things on that ride that made me feel uncomfortable. It definitely needs a bit more work.”
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