The Technology 202: A ride in a self-driving car shows the U.S. is far from ready to give robocars free rein

with Tonya Riley

SAN FRANCISCO — To me, the San Francisco streets seemed deserted. To my self-driving car, they were full of hazards. 

In mid-March, just as the coronavirus outbreak started to change the world as we knew it, I took a ride in an autonomous vehicle through the narrow and winding, topsy-turvy streets of downtown San Francisco — from the hairpin turns of Lombard Street to the steep hills surrounding Coit Tower and the famed Embarcadero waterfront. 

Even with tens of thousands of workers staying put as the first work-from-home orders hit, in the back of a Toyota Highlander piloted by autonomous vehicle start-up Zoox, I started to become hyper-aware of the circus of hazards robocars encounter on a daily basis. 

Dangers I couldn’t see with my own eyes materialized on a display screen out of thin air. My car adjusted to avoid them.

There was a cyclist or skateboarder in the blind spot. A delivery driver peeking out behind his truck. 

On the screen, which essentially displays what the car sees, the bustling intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue was a tangled knot of obstacles, even with a fifth less traffic and a third fewer transit commuters out and about — and even in the city that registered some of the most drastic initial impacts of the novel coronavirus.

“This is city driving,” said Mark R. Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Zoox. Rosekind is the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. “It’s not a piece of cake … [It’s] hard to drive here.” 

Case in point: the matter of a double-parked delivery truck. On a narrow-ish street of the variety you’d encounter all the time here, the FedEx truck hogged the lane and the deliveryman was negotiating whether to walk around it into the street to climb back inside. But the man hesitated and turned back toward the sidewalk.

That triggered a sort of crisis of confidence for our car. Could it proceed around the truck without putting the pedestrian at risk? Should it stay put until the truck moved? What if there was a car coming from behind the truck? Of course, all of these calculations were being made in milliseconds.

Better to wait it out, our car decided. Like the spinning multicolored wheel on a Mac computer, we were suddenly at the mercy of processors.

“We’re waiting to detect it as a double-parked vehicle; it’s still thinking,” said the car’s software operator after another such instance involving a double-parked vehicle.

The blare of fans in the back seat is another reminder that you’re riding inside a computer. 

And this translates to some herky-jerky negotiation of real-life obstacles. 

Near Lombard Street, the famed winding road that is a hub for tourist photos, pedestrians had basically formed a human chain in the crosswalk. Here’s how the car handled it: by slowing down to a stop, and then nudging forward, and then nudging forward a bit more, and more, and more until the incredulous bystanders scooted out of the way. That brought to mind another learning curve. Cars can be instructed to follow laws and learn the basics of driving from their human programmers. But who teaches them the stuff that’s mostly left unsaid?

“You’ve got to understand the personality and etiquette of the city,” said Rosekind, who also served on the National Transportation Safety Board. Where typically a driver and pedestrians with the right of way would make eye contact to allow the car to pass, the cars have to learn to do this themselves. “It’s kind of like you want to say, ‘You shouldn’t be standing there.’ ”

Programming such cars to have a “personality” presents another hurdle, he said.

That’s perhaps especially true in cities where aggressive drivers burst into an intersection to make unprotected left turns, and others opt to wait it out amid a chorus of honking.

“This is another example of how much there is to figure out,” Rosekind said. “How you actually use movement of the vehicle, light and sound to help communicate to road users around you what the intention of the vehicle is?”

It’s all part of why fully autonomous vehicles, which wouldn’t require a driver to intervene and can operate without steering wheels or pedals, are years or even decades off, in his view. 

“We’re going to start seeing three to five years where people start actually deploying in cities,” he said, “but it’s going to be 20 or 30 years before you start seeing this all over the place.”

Still, in San Francisco, our trip went off mostly without a hitch. There were no disengagements, the metrics regulators use to collect data on potential software bugs and road hazards posed by self-driving cars. And absent more than a few especially jerky stops and starts, it was a seamless trip around one of the more visually interesting parts of the city.

Zoox wants to master that environment, among the most complex it could fathom, in the hopes that after it can conquer the streets of San Francisco, other locations might be easier to grasp. Zoox is also testing in Las Vegas, where a large concrete barrier on the Strip and swarms of pedestrians present their own set of challenges.

Safety is paramount in the effort to deploy autonomous cars, per Rosekind.

At NHTSA, he oversaw the investigation of defective Takata air bags which led to the largest-ever automotive recall constituting nearly 34 million cars and trucks. But contrary to arguments that government has been too slow to regulate the vehicles traveling in cities, Rosekind said it’s too early for regulators to become involved.

“Everyone who’s screaming… ‘We need regulation,’ what are you going to regulate?” he asked, noting the first widespread deployments of consumer-facing robocars could be years away.

Rather, he said, proactive safety reporting systems need to be instituted, similar to in aviation, that ensure defects are corrected before they potentially subject road users to more injuries and deaths. In 2018 an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., the first pedestrian death involving a self-driving vehicle; investigators said the safety driver was watching videos on a cellphone in the run-up to the crash.

Rosekind wants the cars programmed to eliminate the 40,000 traffic deaths that occur annually in the U.S. And he rejected the notion of the trolley problem, in which a car has to be programmed to prioritize who lives and dies in a crash scenario — choosing between, say, saving a baby in a stroller and an elderly person with a cane.

“How safe is safe enough? Zero is actually the only number,” he said. “Nobody — there’s no one morally anywhere ethically that has a right to make those decisions. The target has to be zero fatalities if we can.”

Our top tabs

Apple and Google will ban collecting location data in apps using their contact tracing technology.

That includes gathering location data for sales or marketing purposes, Caroline Haskins at BuzzFeed News reports. The Bluetooth-enabled technology is designed to help applications record when users come in contact with an infected individual so that the app can send an alert. 

The guidelines for public health officials come in response to ongoing lawmaker concerns about how data gathered by the contact tracing technology will be stored and used by the companies.

The companies will also limit use of the technology to one public health authority per region, but did not specify which authorities or agencies had access to the technology. Apple and Google have said they will not design the tracing apps, but they did offer some userface design guidance to states in their announcement yesterday.

Other countries are pushing ahead without the tech giants. Britain will start testing its own coronavirus tracing app today.

An Amazon vice president quit over concerns with the company’s firing of warehouse workers and climate activists.

Tim Bray, a top engineer at the company, will forgo a paycheck that could top $1 million, Jay Greene reports. 

“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray wrote. “So I resigned.”

Bray cited the firings of warehouse workers who have protested working conditions as well as two corporate employees who publicly criticized the company’s climate policies. Bray said he raised concerns internally but declined to elaborate. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” Bray wrote. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.” 

Two of the fired employees, Chris Smalls and Emily Cunningham, tweeted in support of Bray:

Bray was the only executive to sign a letter in support of a shareholder resolution last year that asked Amazon to create a more strategic plan for dealing with climate change. His actions fall just weeks before shareholders will gather online to vote on a new wave of resolutions, including one addressing climate issues.

Amazon declined to comment but emphasized that the employees were fired for violating company policies.

Democrats are turning to social media to reach voters as coronavirus shuts down physical grass-roots organizing.

That includes some unconventional campaign events, such as one candidate’s “bedtime bathtime storytimes,” Makena Kelly at the Verge reports.

“A lot of it is just throwing stuff at the wall to see what works, either from what people say they enjoy or just to provide a distraction,” said Karina Sahlin, communications director for Mel Gagarin, a House candidate in New York. Their field director turned to the Instagram streams after the coronavirus pushed their organizing efforts indoors.

“’Bedtime Bathtime Storytimes’ have become regular events for Gagarin’s campaign even if they’re only for an audience of around a dozen people, including other members of the campaign,” Kelly reports. “At the end of his 20-minute reading, field director Kyle Levenick took a sip of wine and quietly blew out his candles before ending the stream in total darkness.”

Digital-savvy lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) may have paved the way for insurgent progressive candidates online, but a lack of resources can still pose a challenge. Campaigns running on sometimes $5,000 or less can’t afford to reach constituents’ news feeds, Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, said.  Drumming up traffic organically can take a lot of guesswork.

“Having to break through the noise was more difficult than it was before,” Sahlin said.

More established candidates have also had to switch to digital. “Our goal was to run a very aggressive retail campaign, and that means a lot of handshakes and high- fives, and you can’t do that right now,” Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass). told the Verge in an interview. His team has ramped up virtual town halls and enlisted celebrity guests such as José Andrés

The efforts have paid off: Kennedy has millions of followers compared to his opponent, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), who has about 50,000.

Privacy patch

A privacy initiative from a consumer advocacy group has the signatures required to qualify for the November ballot.

The initiative from Californians for Consumer Privacy would expand consumer control of how companies use their online data. An earlier version of the initiative qualified in 2018, leading to the California State Legislature to pass a first-of-its-kind consumer privacy legislation in June. The group wants the new ballot initiative to expand on those rights, including establishing an agency to enforce data privacy rights.

Inside the industry

Adam Neumann is suing SoftBank for allegedly breaching contract by pulling a $3 billion offer for WeWork shares.

The WeWork co-founder hopes to consolidate his lawsuit with a similar one brought by members of WeWork’s board last month, Kirsten Korosec at TechCrunch reports.

“SoftBank will vigorously defend itself against these meritless claims,” Rob Townsend, senior vice president and chief officer at SoftBank, said in a statement. “Under the terms of our agreement, which Adam Neumann signed, SoftBank had no obligation to complete the tender offer in which Mr. Neumann — the biggest beneficiary — sought to sell nearly $1 billion in stock.” 

More industry news:

Rant and rave

Yesterday was #MayTheForth, or “Star Wars Day.” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) used the trending topic on Twitter to share this graphic on social distancing:

The top U.S. cyber official used it to launch a new educational campaign:

For others, it was useful for calendaring during coronavirus. Comedian Stephen Colbert:



  • Lyft, Square and Paypal report earnings on Wednesday.
  • Uber reports earnings on Thursday.

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