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Encore: Look closely at those white Jaguars in San Francisco — no drivers!


In San Francisco, more and more self-driving cars are picking up riders on the city's streets. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn went to check them out.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: A video went viral last month. In it, San Francisco police pull over a car with its headlights off. As officers approached the vehicle, someone shouts at them.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ain't nobody in it.

ALLYN: Ain't nobody in it. Now, I'm watching the video of the bewildered police officers with UC Berkeley transportation researcher Steven Shladover.

STEVEN SHLADOVER: One of them looking on the driver's side, one looking in the front - and I guess this is where they've realized there's no driver in the vehicle.

ALLYN: When the officers walk away, the car pulls ahead and parks with its hazards on.

SHLADOVER: But I believe the vehicle actually responded quite well.

ALLYN: Which is a relief to Mo Elshenawy. He's an engineering executive at Cruise, the General Motors-owned self-driving car company. It was one of his company's cars that police were pulling over, and the technology worked as it was supposed to. He says roads would be safer if more cars were self-driving.

MO ELSHENAWY: Your cars would never get angry or tired or frustrated or do a California roll on a stop sign.

ALLYN: Self-driving car companies have been promising for years that we're on the cusp of a driverless-car future, and it just hasn't happened. But in San Francisco, the technology has hit a milestone. Fully, self-driving cars have gotten approval to taxi people around. So I thought I'd give it a try. Cruise has an application process, and I wasn't selected. So I tried Waymo, the company owned by Google.

LINDSAY: Please buckle up.

ALLYN: These fully electric white Jaguars tricked out with all sorts of high-tech cameras and sensors are everywhere in the city. But only employees and a select group of others get to ride in these here. For me, the Waymo car has a safety driver.

What's your name?

LINDSAY: I'm Lindsay (ph).

ALLYN: Lindsay - how's it going?

LINDSAY: Good. Good.

ALLYN: As we're driving around, I ask Waymo spokeswoman Sandy Karp, who's sitting next to me, so Lindsay really isn't driving?

SANDY KARP: No. So the Waymo driver or the technology is fully driving.

ALLYN: What do you mean, Waymo driver? What do you mean by that?

KARP: So the Waymo driver is what we call our autonomous driving suite. So...

ALLYN: So a robot?

KARP: Exactly - the robot.


ALLYN: From the outside, you'd never know that Lindsay wasn't doing anything but sitting there. Sure, it looks like she's driving, but she's not. And the ride was smooth. There was just one thing that stuck out to me.

So 23 miles per hour. That's what people complain about, that these cars go too slow.

KARP: So we also want to provide a comfortable driving experience for our riders. So what we've heard from our riders is that when you're barreling down a hill, they'd actually prefer to go a little slower.

ALLYN: This, after all, is San Francisco, a city known for its dramatic hills. Waymo's cars have been trained to take them extra cautiously. The short span in the robot Jaguar was over, and we got out.

Thank you.

KARP: Thank you so much.

LINDSAY: Yeah. Thank you for coming.

ALLYN: Appreciate it.

It makes sense that the nation's tech hub would be on the forefront of robo taxis. And one other place, the Phoenix, Ariz. area, also has self-driving cars buzzing around. But for the most part, self-driving cars are not common around the U.S. I ask UC Berkeley researcher Shladover when self-driving cars will be able to go everywhere and do everything human drivers can do.

SHLADOVER: The answer for that one is probably never.

ALLYN: There are tons of regulations. These cars are expensive to operate. The technology is complicated, and it's just not there yet. Shladover says it's really hard to train a computer to learn the nuance of human driving.

SHLADOVER: Eye contact and gestures that other road users use to communicate with each other to coordinate their use of the road space.

ALLYN: Recently, I was in an Uber at a stoplight, and to our left and to our right pulled up Waymo Jaguars with nobody in the driver's seat. I asked my Uber driver, do you worry these cars are going to put you out of a job? And he responded, no because I know how to fix a flat.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASERATI'S "THIEVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.