One ploughed headfirst into the back of a packed city bus. Another ignored yellow police warning tape and became tangled in downed power lines. Yet another ‘out-of-control’ vehicle moved menacingly towards a police officer while ignoring his frantic command for it to ‘stay!’.
Welcome to the streets of San Francisco, where the world’s biggest experiment in self-driving ‘robotaxis’ is under way.
While Big Tech says this is the future – a world where artificial intelligence (AI) avoids accidents caused by human error – the reality uncovered by The Mail on Sunday offers a glimpse into a future where AI-controlled vehicles cause chaos on city streets.
One local told me: ‘The self-driving future has arrived on the streets of San Francisco and it’s a nightmare. These things are causing havoc because they don’t know what to do when something unpredictable happens.
‘Thankfully, the incidents haven’t involved anyone getting hurt or killed. But it’s only a matter of time.’
HANDS-FREE: One of 200 Waymo Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs that pick up passengers across the Californian city
IGNORED: Officers attempt to disable the robotaxi as it inches towards the fire brigade’s main water lines
While San Francisco is the centre of the new technology, autonomous vehicles will take to Britain’s streets tomorrow when driverless buses begin operating in Scotland.
Five Alexander Dennis Enviro200AV vehicles, travelling at up to 50mph, will ferry passengers along a 14-mile route from Fife, across the Forth Road Bridge and into Edinburgh.
Unlike San Francisco, where robotaxis have no one inside, the Scottish buses will have a ‘safety driver’ ready to grab the controls in an emergency. There will also be a ‘captain’ on board to handle tickets and passenger queries.
But it is only a matter of time before humans are totally removed from the equation – which makes what is happening in San Francisco all the more worrying.
San Franciscans are used to being at the vanguard of new tech, thanks to Silicon Valley being less than 40 miles away. The big names of ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, came here first. As did home-rental giant Airbnb.
Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, were last year given permission to start operating Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Services.
Many were intrigued to see the driverless cars navigating San Francisco’s famously hilly streets.
Initially, the cars were authorised to drive only during quiet hours – from 10pm to 6am – but curiosity turned to dismay at the start of this year when regulators allowed them to patrol the streets 24/7.
Today there are more than 400 robotaxis on the road, with that number expected to double within the next 12 months.
There are about 200 Waymo Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicles, which are currently free to riders, while Cruise has 240 electric Chevy Bolt vehicles, which cost about the same as a ride-sharing service.
The system works by people ‘calling’ the car via an app on their phone and, just like ride-sharing services such as Uber, tracking it on the screen until it reaches their location.
CUT OFF: After the officer shouts through its window, a Waymo technician hears and is able to remotely disable the car
RESTRAINING ORDER: The officer tries using a flare in a bid to obscure the car’s cameras while barking: ‘No! You stay!’
The car navigates using an array of radar, lidar (laser imaging) and spinning sensors on the roof, front, back and sides, as well as cameras which collect data in real time. It uses AI to steer and its algorithms allow the car to improve its performance over time as it learns to adapt to surroundings.
Once it arrives, you unlock the doors via the app, buckle up and press ‘start’ to begin the ride. You can play music, adjust the temperature and charge your phone.
Riders have described the experience as ‘surreal’. One passenger, Shelby Church, said: ‘I felt like I was in a futuristic movie.
‘When it first started driving, I was freaking out.’
While tech companies claim their cars are safe, the reality has proved to be far less rosy. After a Cruise car rear-ended a bus in March, the company recalled the software on all of its cars.
Cruise founder Kyle Vogt said: ‘We do not expect our vehicles to run into the back of a city bus under any conditions, so even a single incident like this was worthy of immediate study.’
In February, San Francisco’s fog rolled in from the bay, causing several cars to come to a grinding halt in the middle of a busy street because their sensors could not ‘see’ through the haze.
While human drivers honked their horns, there was no way around. A two-mile traffic jam built up before technicians arrived, manually took over the controls and cleared the street.
When a robotaxi was pulled over by police for driving at night with no headlights, it stopped briefly before ‘making a run for it’ across an intersection.
The footage went viral on social media. ‘Are you serious? How does that happen?’ one baffled onlooker exclaims.
The most infamous incident took place in February, but only became public knowledge earlier this month when police released bodycam footage (pictured above) of an encounter between a robotaxi and a police officer who was controlling traffic at the scene of a fire.
As the Waymo rolls towards the officer he shouts: ‘No! You stay!’
Officers battle to put out the blaze, which started in an illegal drug lab, causing an explosion which killed a woman.
As the unmanned car inches towards him, the policeman shouts: ‘It doesn’t know what to do!’ He throws a flare on the road, speaking to it as if it was a dog.
Frantically radioing his dispatcher, the officer says: ‘Got an autonomous vehicle, the Waymo. It’s inching slowly and closely to one of the main water lines. Is there a way you can contact a responder to come out and disable this vehicle? I don’t trust this AI.’
UNSTOPPABLE: A police officer’s bodycam shows a Waymo taxi creeping up to a traffic cordon around a house fire
Another policeman then manages to contact a Waymo technician through the car’s microphones, who remotely stops the car.
A spokesman for Waymo told the MoS: ‘On February 9, a fully autonomous Waymo vehicle approached an intersection with active fire and police activity.
‘We’ve implemented a number of updates to advance and refine the software. As we operate in some of the densest parts of San Francisco, we interact with active emergency vehicles day and night. The vast majority of these often challenging and complex encounters have been without issue.
‘Our goal is to responsibly deploy technology that will increasingly improve road safety, and the trust and safety of communities in which we drive are important to us.
‘We maintain great respect for our first responders and appreciate our ongoing relationship.’
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Cruise said: ‘We maintain an open line of communication with first responders to receive feedback and discuss specific incidents to improve our response.
‘We’re proud of our safety record to date and remain committed to doing everything possible to make roads safe.’
Despite these words, critics are demanding more oversight.
Robotaxis are not regulated by local authorities, rather tech companies were given the go-ahead to operate by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission, neither of which, some claim, monitor the day-to-day activities of the cars.
One insider, who preferred not to give his name, said: ‘This is Big Tech doing what Big Tech does. No one is disputing this technology will be worthwhile in the long run, but it’s like the Wild West.’
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has written to regulatory agencies asking for expansion plans to slow down until there is more transparency and oversight.
The source added: ‘Like everything the tech companies do, they are hoping they will get away with it… until they can’t.’
Pilot schemes are under way in LA, Phoenix and Austin and are set to launch in Dallas and Houston. The Chinese are also testing their own driverless taxis in Beijing.
‘This is a multi-billion-dollar industry,’ the source said. ‘There is a race to be first – but at what cost? Do people have to die?
Ralf Speth, chief executive officer of Jaguar Land Rover Plc, speaks while standing in front of the Jaguar I-Pace with Waymo autonomous electric vehicle during an event in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 27, 2018
‘What happens here happens in the UK six months or a year down the line. No government wants to be caught short in the AI race.’
There has already been a death caused by an autonomous vehicle. In 2018, a homeless woman, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was killed by a driverless Uber as she crossed a road in Tempe, Arizona.
The Washington Post compared her death to that of British woman Bridget Driscoll who, in 1896, became the first pedestrian to be killed by a car.
An Uber employee, Rafaela Vasquez, was the back-up driver of the car which struck Ms Herzberg – supposedly monitoring the road and poised to take over if anything unexpected happened.
Some have suggested that the car failed to detect Ms Herzberg because she was not on a marked crossing and walked into a dark street at night, thus ‘baffling’ the self-driving Uber.
Ms Vasquez, 49, will go on trial next month after pleading not guilty to negligent homicide.
Meanwhile, concern in San Francisco grows.
‘Tech companies see us as this place where they can find a higher tolerance for their shenanigans,’ Marita Murphy, 40, told the Washington Post.
‘It feels like we’re beholden to the will of these companies and their moneymaking motives.’
San Francisco resident Molly McDermott said: ‘It’s uncomfortable, eerie, jarring. It’s a level of future I’m not ready for.’
One of the city’s famous streetcars was forced to slam on the brakes when a Waymo taxi suddenly turned into its path.
Dashcam footage showed passengers shouted ‘woah!’ and were rocked on their feet as the streetcar came to an emergency stop.
Jeffrey Tumlin, director of San Francisco’s bus service, said: ‘What we’re seeing is a significant uptick in traffic and other chaos on our streets.
‘We are concerned that if autonomous vehicles are allowed limitless, driverless operations in San Francisco, that traffic impacts grow exponentially.
‘When you encounter a vehicle with no human on board, it is dispiriting and disempowering.’
Another source told the MoS: ‘The fundamental problem with the cars is they can’t cope with the unexpected. When a human driver comes across an accident they will back up and go around it safely. When an AI car comes across fog, a stopped bus in the wrong place or a fire with hoses in the street, it doesn’t know what to do.’
Waymo’s chief product officer, Saswat Panigrahi, last week announced his company is doubling its test area in Phoenix to 180 square miles (466 sq km): ‘We are feeling tremendous wind at our backs,’ he said.
Responding to the problems the robotaxis have faced, he added: ‘There are clearly additional learnings that we are responding to.’
Waymo claims its robotaxis are providing 10,000 rides each week, with that figure set to increase to 100,000 by next summer.
The residents of San Francisco – and the rest of us – can only hope the cars learn how to deal with unexpected events before an encounter turns deadly.