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You're Not Imagining It: There Are More Driverless Cars in SF Now

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White SUV with tech gadgets and cameras sticking out from the sides and roof waits at a stoplight in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood.
A Waymo-brand car sits at an intersection in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

If you’ve driven around San Francisco recently, you may have noticed a fleet of white Jaguar SUVs with spinning gadgetry on top and lots of other tech sticking off the back and sides. If you pull up next to one of these, you might notice that even though a person is sitting in the driver’s seat, they aren’t really controlling the car.

These are self-driving cars — or autonomous vehicles, as they are known more formally — from a company called Waymo.

Bay Curious listener Lenore Kenny says she’s noticed a lot more of these on San Francisco streets than she used to see. She’s wondering, why are there so many? And what are they doing?

Lenore’s right: There are more autonomous vehicles, or AVs, on our roads. More than 1,400 are registered in California, up from 900 last November, according to the DMV. But San Francisco alone has more than 400,000 registered vehicles; the number of AVs is small by comparison. Still, in some parts of the city, you can count on seeing AVs every few minutes.


Waymo is not the only culprit. Nine AV companies are testing driverless tech in California right now, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Companies like Cruise, Argo AI and Zoox are competing to crack the automated vehicle market.

Lenore wants to know why more cars are on the road than before. The short answer is that companies developing AVs need data — lots of data — to ensure the cars can handle any driving situation. And, as anybody who has driven in San Francisco can attest, there’s a lot to think about when driving here.

“San Francisco is an incredibly diverse driving environment,” says Sam Kansara, senior product manager for Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. “Part of our increase in presence in San Francisco is about making sure our software and technology can perform well in all of those different environments.”

The AV experiment uses the idea of machine learning. Engineers created an algorithm that continues to get better as the test vehicles collect data. The car “learns” from its experiences driving, building new scenarios into its algorithm and making it more reliable and safer over time. The more miles the cars drive, the more data they collect.

“The key of the algorithms is that in order to be efficient, they need to have a pretty big database of learning examples,” says Alexandre Bayen, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies. “That’s why you see so many of them collecting that data right now, because we’re not there yet.”

It has been a long road to development for autonomous vehicles. They are certainly more visible on streets today, but AVs have been on California’s roads in one form or another for almost 30 years, beginning in 1997 in San Diego. The HOV lanes on I-15 were closed during the day, which allowed scientists and research engineers like Steven Shladover from UC Berkeley’s California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program to run vehicles for “a big public demonstration.” Until then testing had taken place primarily on test tracks.

The technology has evolved from those early years and spawned things like adaptive cruise control — available on many modern automobiles — to cars that can drive themselves.

Are autonomous vehicles safe?

At this point, companies and scientists have been testing AVs on California streets since the 1990s, always with a human operator in the car in case of emergencies. But cars can be deadly, so regulators are being cautious about approving AVs in their current state.

“They’re going to have to have some minimum standards set so that riders who aren’t specialists in this field can be given some reassurance that this is actually a safe system,” says Shladover. He wouldn’t name specific brands but cautioned, “some of the companies that work in this space don’t know what they’re doing.”

The California DMV says a variety of safety protocols are in place and bad actors can lose their permits to operate. But Shladover cautions, “The state cannot ensure the safety of the automated driving systems entirely by themselves.” He says it will take cooperation between the federal government and the state government to make AVs truly safe. “They will need federal safety regulations to complement the state regulations in areas that the state does not have the authority or the expertise to regulate,” he says.

As the software algorithms improve, safety should improve along with it. Still, the rollout likely will remain a gradual process, with certain types of vehicles allowed to operate in certain areas under certain conditions and at certain times of day. If AVs are going to truly become a viable transportation option, they’ll need to be able to drive everywhere, on any type of road, in many weather conditions.

“That means not only driving here in the Bay Area, but driving up to Tahoe,” says Shladover, “driving up to Yosemite, the rural roads in central California, going through the Bay Bridge toll plaza around sunset when the sun is shining straight in your eyes.” All of these scenarios need to be accounted for, for a driverless vehicle to drive solo.

When could we see driverless AVs on the road all around us, safely ferrying zoned-out passengers to their destinations? Estimates vary, with regulatory agencies like the CPUC and DMV, as well as the AV companies themselves, apprehensive to discuss concrete timelines. Meanwhile, observing experts, like Shladover, say we have a long way to go.

When pressed for a date, he says 2075, but adds his gut answer: “Probably never.”

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