The many potholes on the road to self-driving cars

I’m cruising down Haight Street when four women flag me outside Magnolia. They’re going to the Marriott Marquis. 

“But first we need to see the Painted Ladies,” the woman sitting up front tells me. “Is that alright?” 

When I drop them off at their hotel, they thank me profusely for the entertaining and informative tour of the Victorians in the Western Addition.

As I drive away, I think about all the different services we offer as taxi drivers and how difficult it would be to replace that experience with self-driving cars.

Autonomous vehicles have been on my mind all week. On Tuesday, I was a guest on the Will and Willie Show. One of the topics I discussed with comedian Will Durst and former mayor Willie Brown was the advent of self-driving cars. I made my usual argument that autonomous vehicles contradict Uber’s current business model as a technology company that merely connects people looking for a ride with a driver. 

If Uber decides to become the largest taxi company in the world, they’ll have to purchase hundreds of thousands of vehicles and assume all liability and risk, which is something they’ve foisted on their “driver partners” since inception. 

Willie brought up the partnerships that Uber and Lyft are making with car manufacturers, but I think the eggheads who run these companies have no clue how the real world works, and they greatly underestimate the stewardship of taxi drivers.

Driverless cars will be programmed to always follow the law. So you can say goodbye to the archetypal experience of jumping in a cab and telling the driver, “Step on it!” You’ll end up like Quaid in “Total Recall” when he’s trying to get away from Cohaagen’s men and the Johnny Cab won’t take him anywhere without a street name and number.

On Wednesday, Uber unveiled a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. I watched several videos as reporters were introduced to the new technology. I wasn’t impressed. Besides the “driver” who is present with his hands on the steering wheel at all times, the cars apparently have problems with traffic signals, can’t pass on the left or turn right on red — even when it’s legal — because the cars are designed for safety first.

On Friday, I saw one of Uber’s self-driving cars on Harrison Street, identical to the vehicles in the videos. It even had Pennsylvania plates. Two people were sitting up front and two in back. I was hoping to get a better look, but when the light turned green and the rest of us took off, it barely moved.

That night, in the National yard, we stood around talking about the potential pitfalls with autonomous cars.

Juneaux brought up how the interiors will be trashed after a few short months without someone to keep them clean. 

“And what about blowouts on the freeway?”

“What about unconscious passengers? Will the cars have the ability to wake them up when they reach their destination?”

“What about people jumping in front of your cab? Will they be able to react as quickly as a trained cab driver?”

We envisioned a whole new porn genre: Sex in Self-Driving Cars.

Then there are other hazards…

Vandals could easily smash a window or slash the tires, rendering the vehicle useless. And criminals will have a field day. Just like in the days of roadside bandits, a highwayman could easily stop an autonomous vehicle by standing in its way while his accomplices rob the helpless passengers inside.

John Han, who directed the documentary “Driving for Hire,” recently posted on Facebook about many of these same issues with self-driving cars that only transportation providers can foresee. Along with the trash and vomit that passengers will inevitably leave behind, what about personal possessions like phones? Or the possibility of prostitutes using self-driving cars instead of motel rooms. 

Oh, and what about hackers? Yesterday, I read about a group called Keen Team that hacked a Tesla S remotely and took control of the vehicle’s operating system.

Uber, Tesla, Google, Lyft and the rest may want us to believe self-driving cars are the future, but after my segment on the Will and Willie Show, I had a staircase wit moment. I leaned over to Willie and said, “You know, in science-fiction movies, before the robots take over, the humans have one last chance to defend their way of life. And when it comes autonomous cars, I wouldn’t bet against the San Francisco taxi industry.”

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to Kelly at or visit his blog at

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