There was national news coverage this week of driverless cars pulling off to the side of the road in San Francisco due to fog. This wouldn’t have been newsworthy if it didn’t involve driverless cars—a technology that is still confounding drivers, policymakers, and passengers. Are driverless cars safe? At least compared to the average driver, who can get distracted, tired, drunk, speed, or even just make a judgment error—yes.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, carmakers have submitted a total of 419 autonomous vehicle crash reports since the advent of the technology. That number isn’t insignificant, but consider that according to Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System, in San Francisco there were 3,247 car accidents that resulted in injuries, an average of 270 injuries per month, in just 2022 alone. Granted, there are more cars with human drivers than algorithm drivers, but cars autonomously driven have the benefit of 360 visibility and a catalog of knowledge from every other driverless car in their system. Functionally, years of driving experience are available instantly to new cars that come online.
Phoenix, Arizona is one of the few places in the country with driverless cars. Back in 2015, Governor Ducey signed an executive order allowing for the development and testing of the technology in the state. Today, they function like Uber or Lyft but only operate in two particular sections of the city.
While visiting my parents in Arizona, I decided that I wanted to ride in a driverless car. So, I drove to a spot within the pickup region and called Waymo to take me to a nearby Starbucks.
When it arrived about 5 minutes later, I said to my dad and brother, “So who is coming with me?” Immediately shutting down that idea, they instead opted to follow behind the car while I was inside it—they didn’t feel it was worth the risk.
Getting in the car was pretty simple. I sat in the back seat, tapped on the display screen, and I was off. I started to panic a bit when I realized the car had to immediately drive through a busy grocery store parking lot. Carts everywhere, children, slow walkers who only take diagonal paths in front of cars—I was pretty nervous, but the car was fine.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the looks from strangers in and near the car. Absolutely everyone was looking at the minivan with no driver and a giant camera on the roof.
On the screen, I saw the car identify every cart and person. Without a doubt, it handled that chaotic 50ft stretch better than I could have.
On the regular streets, which were decently busy, the car handled extremely well, noticing when other cars were shifting lanes and adjusting seamlessly.
Watching the steering wheel adjust, it felt like I was being driven by a ghost. This is the first time since seeing the original iPhone that I thought, “This is the future.”
The person who was most concerned about my driverless car trip was my mother. I texted her a picture of me on the street and she texted, “Get out now.” I received a phone call from her immediately after discouraging me from ever being in a driverless car again. It was sweet, but misplaced concern.
I’ve been a passenger on some borderline unsafe Uber, Lyft, and Taxi rides. One time a driver accidentally canceled my ride and then tried to make me pay cash to get home after midnight. Another time, a car was pulled over by the police for an illegal U-turn while I was in it. Even more common are just unusual characters that I don’t necessarily want to talk to, or drivers who get lost or speed.
That being said, I sometimes really like the human connection of an Uber driver. Especially before the pandemic, drivers were usually interesting and chatty. Uber rideshare was a good way to make friends as a new intern in Washington DC.
Based on my experience with Waymo and my history with human-driven cars, I’m more likely to order a driverless car because there would be no variation in driving quality compared to a human-operated car. Waymo isn’t an absolute replacement for Uber or Lyft, but it is a welcome option in the market. Sometimes, I just don’t want to interact with anyone, or I don’t want to risk an uncomfortable situation with a male driver.
Hopefully, more states will declare their roads open to driverless cars soon like Arizona and California have. Considering the staggering number of traffic fatalities every year, I would love to see more fleets of driverless cars on American roads.