Taking A Cruise: I Have Seen The Future

Taking A Cruise: I Have Seen The Future

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As part of the first Guidewire innovation tour a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ride in a Cruise autonomous taxi.

That’s right, I willingly got into a vehicle without a human operator and let it drive me around. Why? Because the idea of a first-hand look at one of the most potentially disruptive technologies imaginable was simply spellbinding.

To add to the, uh, excitement, Cruise had been prominent in the Bay Area news over the prior few days, thanks to a traffic jam from wireless network bandwidth competition and an accident with an emergency vehicle that resulted in the state of California requiring a 50% reduction in their active fleet.

But with a login code in hand and a short 10-block distance from dinner to our hotel, I requested a ride and headed outside with two fellow intrepid adventurers.

Within a few minutes, our vehicle arrived. It was a Cruise-standard white-and-orange Chevy Bolt, bearing the cutesy name “Sweet Potato,” presumably to endear it to the passengers about to entrust their vehicular safety to its driverless artificial intelligence. As we piled into the backseat and buckled up, I felt a familiar sense of anticipation, not unlike boarding an unknown roller coaster for the first time.

During our short safety briefing, we encountered our first surprise. Rather than heading straight up the hill, Mr. Sweet Potato (as we seem to have gendered it, for reasons unknown) had instead mapped a circuitous, 19-minute route around the city. We debated the cause – it’s programmed to avoid roads with streetcar lines; it can’t “see” over the intersections on steep hills, it’s just lazy – as we pulled out into traffic.

First reaction: Whoa, this is really happening. There’s nothing like watching a steering wheel turn on its own, with no way to reach it from your seat behind a plexiglass barrier, to lock you in on the fact that things are now completely out of your control.

Beyond that, what struck me immediately was quite positive: the degree to which Sweet Potato recognized and responded to potential hazards, in some cases far better than a human driver would. It navigated comfortably around a parked car that was infringing on our lane, smoothly merging into adjacent traffic without incident. It identified black-wearing pedestrians, in the dark, and approached them cautiously enough to stop in the event that they decided to cross against the light. It continued unflinchingly through an intersection as the light turned yellow, when a human driver would have inevitably hesitated for at least a brief moment.

There were moments of celebrity: at multiple street corners, tourists stared and pointed with eyes wide and mouths agape.

There were moments of hilarity: at one point, a driver leaving a street parking spot to our immediate right waved us along on our right turn, as though there was anyone in control of our car who could take note of his hand gesture.

There were moments of frustration: we rerouted several times, turning 19 minutes into 25. And when we got to our drop-off location, poor Sweet Potato panicked and tried to reroute us for another 20-minute loop, at which point we hit the abort button and ended the ride.

But at the end of the day…we got there! A vehicle driven entirely by computer picked us up, drove us around for nearly half an hour, and deposited us safely at our destination, and at no point did we feel as though we were in any danger.

Of course, there is a world of progress yet to be made. Routing efficiency and reliability had the feel of the early days of the internet; I won’t be calling a Cruise if I need to get somewhere in a hurry. It is also clear that the intermingling of autonomous vehicles with human drivers will create new collision risks, as AVs make safety-related decisions that misalign with the expectations of a typical human driver (e.g., slowing down at a green light when there is a pedestrian waiting). And there’s always the potential for bad actors, not only in the form of cyber hackers, but also human drivers who just want to see if they can “trick” the AV next to them.

Inevitably, the autonomous vehicle revolution will transform large sectors of our economy and society. It will have massive implications for car ownership, city and home design, long-haul trucking, and both personal and commercial auto insurance. We’re still a long way from seeing the full effects of it, but the tech works. We should all be paying attention.