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San Francisco's autonomous adversity

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

By James Li Sept. 28, 2023

Transportation has come a long way from the horse-drawn carriage; today, people can travel across the world in hours or have packages delivered to their doors by drone. One new innovation, which has become more widespread in recent years, is driverless cars. Autonomous vehicles are the most recent addition to the field, with their first appearance at the 2004 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Challenges, which the U.S. sponsored to spark innovation amongst engineers. The challenges consisted of a fully automated vehicle navigating different types of terrain by itself. Since then, autonomous vehicles have expanded outside of specific events and entered society.

Inseo Kim art

Autonomous vehicles, better known as driverless cars, are not an entirely new concept. Driverless cars work through a series of macro and micro decisions. Macro decisions calculate optimal travel routes by using a network similar to GPS, accounting for factors such as traffic, general direction and climate. On the other hand, micro decisions dictate when to move based on data from novel sensors including Light Detection, and Ranging cameras and other sensors feeding real-time data into the car. The technology has been developed for over 30 years, yet it has only recently become advanced enough for the public market.

However, driverless cars are far from flawless. Within just a week of California regulators approving the unrestricted use of driverless taxis in San Francisco, a car from the self-driving car company Cruise crashed into a fire truck. The truck was responding to an emergency call, which gives it the right of way at every intersection. However, Cruise’s software failed to recognize the situation and entered the intersection at a green light, colliding with the fire truck. Cruise was deemed at fault and the state determined that they would need to half their fleet of driverless cars to reevaluate software issues.

“Automated vehicles should not be trusted. People can easily get too comfortable with features on driverless cars that do not necessarily guarantee their safety, causing them to pay less attention to the road, which can lead to more accidents,” Junior Zachary Rodrigues said.

San Francisco is no stranger to new transportation technology, as some citizens remember when the scooter sharing company Lime tested several scooters in the city; some were damaged while others were outright destroyed. Complaints are not just limited to residents of San Francisco—first responders also expressed displeasure at self-driving cars, referencing over 50 incidents in a span of less than six months where these vehicles disrupted their line of work.

“It is not fair for companies to test driverless cars in San Francisco even though companies claim that the technology is safe. Since the cars are still in early testing stages, car accidents are a threat, which jeopardizes the safety of San Francisco residents,” Sophomore Mina Shin said.

Indeed, many residents of San Francisco have expressed dissent towards the autonomous vehicles in their city, emphasizing that the city is being used as a testing ground for the technology. Some have taken to sabotage car testing through a method known as “coning,” where protestors place a cone upon the hood of cars to confuse the driving system and render them immobile.

Researchers from UC Irvine found that certain self-driving cars’ programs malfunction with simple things such as cones on the road since obstacles can confuse the cars’ sensors and cause them to be shut down, as per NPR. However, this might be due to the fact that the technology is still in its early stages—with more training, simple things like cones will be unlikely to pose such a tremendous issue.

Aside from transportation, autonomous vehicles are also being explored in fields utilizing heavy machinery. Farmers have been able to decrease the risk of injury and increase productivity by using efficient, autonomous machines. Autonomous equipment has also aided in construction and mining operations by navigating dusty terrain and working around the clock, reducing time and costs spent on projects.

The incorporation of these vehicles into society is not fully positive, however. Initial costs of self-driving cars can be problematic; many autonomous vehicles are estimated to cost around $250,000—more than five times the cost of a new car in America. Autonomous vehicles also pose a risk to the jobs of people in the transportation sector, especially taxi drivers and public transportation workers. Driverless cars have already begun doing so, as companies have begun exploring the intersectionality of driverless vehicles and ride sharing. Rideshare giant Uber for instance, has begun testing autonomous vehicles in Phoenix.

“Self driving cars are a promising positive development; while many fear that automation may replace humans, such concerns are ultimately unwarranted. Automation is a positive change, not unlike other types of technology like tractors, which are just tools that humans can use,” Senior Ethan Ransing said.

As more companies set their eyes on the driverless vehicle market, worries about safety surrounding the technology will continue to rise. To combat such concerns, companies like Cruise aim to perfect their technologies to minimize any danger their products may present.


About the contributors

James Li

staff writer

James Li is a senior at Leland High School and is a Staff Writer for the Charger Account. When not working, he enjoys bowling, running, and playing video games.

Inseo Kim

art director

Inseo Kim is a senior and the art director for The Charger Account. She enjoys hanging out with friends and strong matcha ice cream.

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