Sunday, June 16

If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Ride In a Driverless Car

When David De Clercq traveled to San Francisco last year, he had a few musts on his itinerary: Go to Alcatraz. Try new restaurants. And ride in a self-driving car.

Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles or, colloquially, robotaxis, have been driving the streets of San Francisco in some form since 2009 and have been operating commercially since last August. The cars are also shaping up as the city’s latest tourist attraction.

Mr. De Clercq, 42, who splits his time between New Jersey and Sardinia, where he owns restaurants and bars and rents villas, is an avid traveler.

“I love exploring and doing new things,” he said. “I knew that I definitely wanted to get a ride while I was in town.”

Conversations abound on Reddit and X, with visitors seeking advice on how to secure a ride while in San Francisco, or be well positioned to spot a driverless car on the go.

Some basics are necessary when plotting your own robotaxi ride. First, while A.V. companies like Cruise and Zoox have proliferated in recent years, Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), is currently the only company offering rides for the public in San Francisco.

Waymo also operates in the Phoenix metro area, including offering rides to and from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and is currently slowly rolling out rides in Los Angeles and testing rides on the San Francisco Peninsula and in Austin, Texas. In Phoenix, you can hail a Waymo using the Uber app; in all other locations, downloading the Waymo app is required. (The app is very similar to other ride-hailing services; pricing is comparable, too.) And in almost all service areas, there is a waiting list to be granted access.

Anjelica Price-Rocha, a public relations manager for Waymo, was not able to provide specific estimates for waiting list times in various cities, but she did say that the wait is shorter in San Francisco than in Los Angeles. (I signed up for the app in San Francisco in late April and was off the waiting list just over a week later.)

“For anyone visiting San Francisco, I would suggest that you get on the wait list as soon as you book your trip,” Ms. Price-Rocha said. Looking to spot a Waymo car on the go? According to Ms. Price-Rocha, popular pickup and drop-off locations include tourist attractions like the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Coit Tower and the Japantown Peace Plaza.

Not able to get direct access in time? Try asking friends, family or colleagues if they’ll invite you on a ride. Jason Karsh, a 38-year-old San Francisco resident who works as a tech marketing executive and consultant, regularly “hails” Waymo cars and suggests riding in them as a tourist activity.

“San Francisco has gotten a bad rep for visitors recently,” Mr. Karsh said. “This is a reminder that San Francisco also is a place that’s living a few years into the future technologically.”

Waymo vehicles are all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs outfitted with radar, lidar, sensors, and internal and external cameras. You use the app to unlock the car when it arrives and to play music during your ride. Four seats are available to passengers — you can sit up front, but you’re not allowed to sit in the driver’s seat (if you try, the car will not move). A real-life customer support team remotely monitors your ride for unsafe activity and is available should you require assistance.

Mr. Karsh described a recent ride with a group of colleagues: “They immediately got out their phones and began filming, almost like they were taping a celebrity or a concert.”

Indeed, riding in a Waymo can turn you into the main attraction. On a recent trip through San Francisco with my visiting in-laws, we not only filmed much of our ride, but spotted a group of tourists who pointed and stared at our driverless vehicle, even pulling out phones to snap footage of their own.

Mr. De Clercq, visiting from New Jersey, described his ride home from a night out in Chinatown as “very interesting and futuristic. It was extremely cautious and quite slow.”

According to safety data from the company, Waymos are significantly safer than human drivers. That hasn’t prevented public backlash over A.V.s — California suspended Cruise vehicles from operating on the streets of San Francisco after an incident in which a pedestrian was hit and dragged under a vehicle. There have been regular complaints of Waymo cars blocking traffic and emergency vehicles Crashes, largely involving stationary objects, have led to a federal investigation of Waymo.

However, in Mr. Karsh’s experience, Waymo rides are sometimes less than seamless because they’re too cautious.

“If there’s a car stopped with the hood up on a two-lane street, a human driver will know to go around. A Waymo might just sit there,” he said.

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a first-time Waymo ride is how quickly it feels normal.

“For the first couple of minutes, there’s this giddiness,” Ms. Price-Rocha said. “But we see that, really quickly, people just ease into the experience.”

Mr. Karsh saw this shift happen firsthand on a recent trip to New York City, when his family opted for a ride in a yellow cab.

“My 3½-year-old son turns to me and my wife and says, ‘Look, Daddy, a driver!’ He was kind of shocked.”

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