By Emma Tori
London, United Kingdom
A Waymo self-driving car on the road in California. (Wikimedia Commons / Grendelkhan)
The first time I watched my dad’s car park itself, I was utterly, entirely, and thoroughly disturbed. Several years ago, such a concept felt uncanny and bizarre. Several days ago, however, on August 10, 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the expansion of robotaxi companies, Waymo and Cruise, to operate 24 hours a day in San Francisco - a notable increase from the previous constraint of 10pm to 6am.
This decision now marks California as pioneering the autonomous vehicle industry, despite voiced public dissatisfaction regarding the prospect of the expansion. Upon the vote, Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, made excited claims of, ‘mobility, safety, sustainability and accessibility benefits’. Perhaps admirably hopeful, these promises seem to be more firmly rooted in technological ideals than substantial evidence.
In California, these robotaxis have gained notoriety for their inconsistent, jerky journeys — randomly stopping, suddenly turning, and occasionally not allowing passengers to exit. More than this discomfort, they are reputable for their status as hindrances to emergency services. In the six months preceding the CPUC’s decision, San Francisco's police and fire departments recorded 55 events in which self-driving cars obstructed rescue operations – including blocking passageways for fire engines and driving through yellow emergency tape. In addition, the California Department of Motor Vehicles counted almost 70 self-driving vehicle collisions in 2023. It is clear to see how robotaxis not only present an immediate threat to passenger safety, but also a constant threat to public safety, without them even being aware of the self-driving vehicle to their right.
It is not as though such circumstances of requests for disclosure are uncommon either. A recent study found that, in San Francisco and Arizona, Waymo had received at least nine search warrants for their footage. Although these companies claim to keep this correspondence minimal, with Waymo asserting to, ‘carefully review each request to make sure it satisfies applicable laws and has a valid legal process’, one can easily hypothesise how a growth from several hundred cars on roads intermittently, to potentially several thousand around-the-clock, will result in even greater police reliance on this evidence.
With Google reportedly receiving over 100,000 government-issued requests for user data annually, and Amazon’s admission in 2022 to sharing Ring doorbell customer data without permission, a new form of constant surveillance seems to be another untimely blow for privacy protection.
Despite California’s recent adjudication, the use of self-driving cars is far from being a controversy exclusive to the US. Much of global legislation concerning liability in the event of damage remains vague, if not undefined. In Germany, responsibility is primarily that of the owner of the vehicle. In Sweden, liability is as of yet unspecified by law. In 2022, The Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission recommended the formulation of an act to provide drivers with relative immunity of criminal charge, where responsibility would instead lie with the body that procured authorisation of the vehicle. In 2018, following a fatal collision, the driver of a self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona was sentenced to three years of supervised probation for felony negligent homicide. Such legislative variances are normal, but only further any feelings of apprehension when considering the novelty of the subject.
I do not doubt that my reaction to my dad’s independently spinning wheel, all those years ago, was largely a product of immaturity and juvenile dramatics. I also do not doubt that, one day, when the technology has been more researched, developed and tested, autonomous driving may very well better our society. In the meanwhile, however, I personally will not be entrusting an empty car with my life, regardless of the intrigue.