Last November, the California Public Utilities Commission announced that autonomous vehicle companies could start charging money for rides across the state. The application process, though, is extremely complicated, thankfully, so it will take at least two years before these “robotaxis” are unleashed on The City.
While this development was buried in the onslaught of media coverage on the election and pandemic, for taxi drivers, the news comes as yet another sucker punch to the future of the industry.
Then, in December, Zoox, the AV company headquartered in Foster City and owned by Amazon, revealed their new robotaxis at a demonstration outside the Fairmont Hotel. Once operational, they plan to use an app like Uber to provide rides in San Francisco. They have a factory in Fremont that can produce thousands of vehicles a year…
While nobody knows, yet, what the world will be like post-COVID, there will undoubtedly be a need for taxi services in the future. The real question is: Will we still need drivers?
Oh yeah, plenty of people have sworn that they’ll never ride in a vehicle without a human behind the wheel, but then, who could have predicted all the changes we’ve become acclimated to over the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic?
No matter what the future holds, though, there will always be a need for traditional taxis. At least minimally…
Recently, I watched “The Mandalorian” on Disney+. In the first episode, when the eponymous bounty hunter captures his quarry and hires a landspeeder to head back to his ship, he rejects the first vehicle offered. “No droids,” he tells the dispatcher and offers to pay extra for a non-droid-operated vehicle. Soon enough, a battered landspeeder pulls up, sputtering and creaking, with Brian Posehn behind the wheel. “Where to?” he asks, wearily.
Later, to emphasize the Mandalorian’s disdain for technology, his prisoner points out his dissatisfaction at being transported to his fate in such an outdated ship, which is referred to as “pre-Empire.”
You see this logic all the time in science fiction. Any halfway intelligent criminal, in the present or the future, is going to avoid using a service that tracks their every move.
Who hasn’t binged “Law & Order” on cable and realized how easily the police can nab a suspect through just basic technology? Now, anywhere your phone goes, so goes Big Brother.
We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly less private. But when it comes to transportation, flagging a taxi and paying with cash is as close to traveling anonymously as you can get. Especially if the camera in the cab is on the fritz. As they often were in mine.
That’s why a certain type of passenger will always rely on traditional cabs. The “downtowners.” The round trips to the TL.
In San Francisco, with its rich bar culture, there was often a demand for party favors. And the individuals who supplied them.
Take Mr. Judy, that two-bit Mission coke dealer who was my regular for a few years. I’ve written about him several times in this column, back when I was still driving him. I even reintroduced him a month ago, in association with Lucky 13, the bar he frequented daily, and across from which I first picked him up late one night, blasting Leonard Cohen through a Bluetooth speaker synched to his burner phone and babbling like some misplaced self-appointed messiah. (My feeble attempt, like this one, to start revisiting rides, and stories, from the past.)
When I first started driving Mr. Judy, he’d get in my cab at the start of my shift at 4 p.m., with a long list of bars, restaurants and addresses where he needed to meet his customers. After hearing them all, I’d arrange his stops based on location and distance. Then we’d do “the rounds.”
After being pushed to the margins by the popularity of Uber and Lyft, I felt like a cab driver again. I just didn’t ask too many questions and kept my eyes on the road.
Back then, driving a cab was still fun. And exciting. And even potentially profitable.
It’s sad to think that this once exalted profession might come to an end. But if we’re lucky, in the future, maybe there’ll still be a need for landspeeders with Brian Posehns behind the wheel.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions.