Cruise’s New Self-Driving Car Is a Slap in the Face to San Francisco 

Despite growing public criticism around its fleet of robotaxis, SF-headquartered Cruise recently debuted its new autonomous vehicle — which is designed to transport the most vulnerable among us.

2023 has been a contentious year for self-driving automobiles. They’ve been a topic of discourse around pedestrian safety; they’ve evolved from a quirky tech novelty to a terrifying driverless product that has hindered first responders and caused traffic delays.

 People have taken hammers to them. Others placed cones on these AVs, effectively rendering them listless — “bricking,” as it’s become commonly known around San Francisco.

Yet, despite public pushback and a reduction in autonomous-vehicle (AV) fleet size, these driverless Chevy Bolts are still combing SF’s hilly topography. In fact, the General Motors-owned company quietly announced “WAV,” dubbed the “world’s first self-driving, [wheelchair-accessible] vehicle” before the weekend. No press release was created in tandem with the announcement, a presumably strange move when given the self-flagellated importance of glorifying the new AV.

Nevertheless, San Francisco techies, most of whom garnered blue checkmarks, took to X and applauded the move; some went as far as to say it’s a game-changing introduction to transportation.

“I’m excited to introduce the [Cruise] WAV, the world’s first self-driving, [wheelchair-accessible] vehicle,” Cruise CEO and co-founder Kyle Vogt posted on X. 

(If Vogt’s name rings a familiar belly… it’s because the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur recently defended incidents involving robotaxis in San Francisco when talking to The Washington Post, saying “no one has ever been seriously hurt across several million miles of driving and hundreds of thousands of rides provided in San Francisco.” In August of this year, a robotaxi owned and operated by Cruise in San Francisco slammed into an SF Fire Department truck that was route to an emergency; the passenger inside the self-driving vehicle was later reported being injured as a result of the crash.)

According to Vogt, WAV was developed in close collaboration with parent company General Motors, as well as with organizations within the disability community, which includes “BraunAbility, Q’Straint, and members of our Cruise Accessibility Council” to ensure the “key components of its design, user experience, and securement systems” were satisfactory.

WAV was also designed from the ground up to be a self-driving vehicle that “accommodates as many wheelchair users as possible,” which is a “distinct technical challenge that has never been done before.” 

As of publishing, SF Muni’s Flyer buses can safely secure two wheelchair riders per 40’ coach; all running BART train cars can also accommodate wheelchair users, though capacities are specific to each train car. If released onto public roads, it appears WAV could transport far more wheelchair users than either of the aforementioned public transit vehicles.

Fantastic. Ostensibly benevolent. What a delight. And yet, its introduction, especially at this particular juncture in Cruise’s chronology, feels cunning — a distraction from the clear criticism around these types of vehicles. 

Moreover: The fact that Cruise created its recent self-driving vehicle to help shuttle the most vulnerable among us amid growing concerns about the safety of its current AV fleet seems almost diabolical. You’d be remiss not to raise an eyebrow at such an announcement. (I know I did.)

Tech is inherently divisive and transformative; both assertions oftentimes exist in tandem with one another. It’s present-day technology that’s allowed Underscore_SF to exist in its current online form… amid a time when mass-printed newspapers and regional periodicals share similar numbers to the amount of vaquita dolphins swimming around the Gulf of California. For such advancements in how we perceive, interact, and hold space in the world, we should all be so grateful. But that’s not to say our appreciation should come at the expense of societal accountability and critical thinking. 

The moment we forget, be it intentionally or through a series of complacent adaptations, that technology must evolve to, first and foremost, serve humanity, is the same point we endanger our collective and individual futures.

“[I’m] proud of our team’s commitment to reshaping the future of transportation across the board,” Vogt wrote in his final threaded post announcing the new AV, later adding he’s “grateful to accessibility community leaders for their input and feedback to make our service better.”

Those are strong, comically ironic words from a man who earlier this month said “anything that [tech companies] do differently than humans is being sensationalized” in response to safety concerns brought up around Cruise’s AV fleet  — worries presented by political figures, City organizations, and, yes, members and leaders belonging to various communities.

Cruise’s new self-driving vehicle is expected to undergo closed-course testing next month, with the hope WAV will be included in an AV pilot program sometime in 2024. It’s unclear which pilot program WAV will join — Cruise presently operates self-driving vehicles in fourteen cities across the country; San Francisco is, however, the only metro where Cruise currently offers a fully commercial citywide robotaxi service — but a promo video showing off a pre-production model appears to have been shot in San Francisco.

Should you notice a WAV around  SF next year, perhaps you’ll be like us and roll your eyes while traversing a crosswalk. Though maybe hold off on that ocular summersault… so you can first make sure said self-driving car doesn’t run a stop sign.

Feature image: Courtesy of Cruise

1 Comment

  • edward

    How are the wheelchairs locked into place so they don’t slide/bounce around or go flying if the vehicle is involved in even a minor collision?

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