Self-driving Uber ride (driving like a cautious grandma) through San Francisco

By Caren Kelleher, cross-posted from Medium

Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus. I know this because yesterday he gave me an unexpected gift: the chance to ride in a self-driving Uber.

I didn’t know I was opting in to that experience when I requested an Uber to take me to a meeting in downtown San Francisco. It was only when I got to the curb outside my house that I noted the vehicle classification for my ride: Self-Driving Car.

Despite my initial excitement (“THE FUTURE IS HERE AND I AM IN IT!”), in the back of my head I wondered if I should cancel the ride. It’s one thing to be a beta tester of, say, an app; but a driverless car? Eh…

As I waited for my ride, I wondered what kind of car would be pulling up to meet me. Would it be big or small? Would the front seat be empty? What if there was a dummy in the front seat, so as not to scare other drivers on the road?! What if the car talked to me and I didn’t know what to say back?!

Luckily we’re not that far in the future, yet. The car was an SUV and I was relieved that there were two people in the front seats.

Now that San Francisco has shut down the self-driving Uber fleet (for now), it could be some time before you get to experience this, too. Here’s what you can expect when you do:

Onboarding: I got in the back of the SUV and was greeted by two friendly Uber employees. They shared that they were riding in self-driving cars for up to ten hours a day, and had been for months. Before we started towards my destination, I was asked to read from a tablet in the backseat, which reminded me to put on my seatbelt and alerted me that there was a camera in the car. The tablet also showed a view of the data the car was receiving about objects around it. It also took a photo of me to share with you.

Control: The human driver got us started, noting that there were some areas of San Francisco that weren’t ready for a driverless car yet, and we would only let the car take over when we were on a street that was. That street turned out to be Van Ness Avenue. Once we hit that part of the journey, the driver took his hands off the wheel, cautiously letting them hover above the wheel in case he had to take control back.

Speed: The car moved slower than a normal Uber driver might take it, but it was also much more alert. It slowed when we approached a moving truck and anticipated humans walking in an intersection as we prepared to make a right on a green light. The drive added about ten minutes to the travel time Waze had predicted, but it got me there in one piece.

Navigation: The car circled a lot more than it needed to, such that we practically ended up back at my apartment before getting sorted out. The front seat passenger noted these things on a laptop and explained a lot of this testing was to find out where the car and humans differed.

Experience: Holy cow, it was so cool! Any fear I had about the ride was helped by the presence of the technicians, but I was also surprised by how safe the experience was. And while I ended up being late to my meeting, at least I could say, “Sorry, my self-driving Uber was driving like a grandma…”