If you go to San Francisco, make sure you travel in a driverless car

When David De Clercq traveled to San Francisco last year, he had a few obligatory stops on his itinerary: going to Alcatraz. He tries new restaurants. And he travels in a self-driving car.

Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles or, colloquially, robotaxis, have been plying the streets of San Francisco in some form since 2009 and have been operating commercially since last August. The cars are also shaping up to be the city's latest tourist attraction.

Mr. De Clercq, 42, who divides his time between New Jersey and Sardinia, where he owns restaurants and bars and rents villas, is an avid traveler.

“I love exploring and doing new things,” she said. “I knew I definitely wanted to hitch a ride while I was in town.”

Conversations abound on Reddit and Xwith visitors looking for advice on how to secure a ride in San Francisco or how to be well placed to spot a moving driverless car.

Some basic knowledge is necessary when planning your robotaxi trip. First, while AV companies like Cruise and Zoox have proliferated in recent years, Waymo, owned by Alphabet (Google's parent company), is currently the only company offering rides to the public in San Francisco.

Waymo also operates in the Phoenix metro area, offering rides to and from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and is currently slowly rolling out rides in Los Angeles and testing rides on the San Francisco Peninsula and in Austin, Texas. In Phoenix, you can hail a Waymo using the Uber app; all other locations require you to download the Waymo app. (The app is very similar to other ride-hailing services; prices are comparable, too.) And in almost every service area there's a waiting list to gain access.

Anjelica Price-Rocha, public relations manager for Waymo, was unable to provide specific estimates for wait times in various cities, but said the wait is shorter in San Francisco than in Los Angeles. (I signed up for the app in San Francisco in late April and got off the waitlist a little over a week later.)

“For anyone visiting San Francisco, I would suggest getting on the wait list as soon as you book your trip,” Ms. Price-Rocha said. Trying to spot a moving Waymo car? According to Ms. Price-Rocha, the most popular pickup and drop-off locations include tourist attractions such as the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Coit Tower and Japantown Peace Plaza.

Can't get direct access in time? Try asking friends, family or colleagues if they'll invite you out for a ride. Jason Karsh, a 38-year-old San Francisco resident who works as a technology marketing executive and consultant, regularly “calls out” Waymo cars and suggests driving them as a tourist activity.

“San Francisco has gotten a bad reputation among visitors recently,” Karsh said. “This reminds us that San Francisco is also a place that lives technologically a few years in the future.”

Waymo vehicles are all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with radar, lidar, sensors and internal and external cameras. You use the app to unlock the car when it arrives and to play music during the journey. Passengers have four seats available: you can sit in the front, but you can't sit in the driver's seat (if you try, the car won't move). A real-life customer support team remotely monitors your ride for unsafe activity and is available if you need assistance.

Mr. Karsh described a recent trip with a group of colleagues: “They immediately took out their phones and started filming, almost as if they were recording a celebrity or a concert.”

In fact, riding in a Waymo can turn you into the main attraction. On a recent trip to San Francisco with my visiting in-laws, we not only filmed much of our trip, but we spotted a group of tourists pointing and staring at our driverless vehicle, even whipping out their phones to snap shots .

Mr. De Clercq, visiting from New Jersey, described his trip home after a night out in Chinatown as “very interesting and futuristic. He was extremely cautious and quite slow.”

According to the company's safety data, Waymos are significantly safer than human drivers. That hasn't prevented a public backlash over AVs: California suspended the operation of Cruise vehicles on the streets of San Francisco after an accident in which a pedestrian was struck and dragged under a vehicle. There have been regular reports of Waymo cars blocking traffic and emergency vehicles. The crashes, which largely involved stationary objects, led to a federal investigation into Waymo.

However, in Mr. Karsh's experience, Waymo rides are sometimes less than smooth because they are too cautious.

“If there's a car stopped with its hood up on a two-lane road, a human driver will know how to go around. A Waymo could just sit there,” she said.

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the first Waymo ride is how quickly it feels normal.

“For the first couple of minutes, there's this dizziness,” Ms. Price-Rocha said. “But we see that, very quickly, people get used to the experience.”

Mr. Karsh saw this change happen firsthand on a recent trip to New York City, when his family opted for a ride in a yellow cab.

“My 3 1/2-year-old son turns to me and my wife and says, 'Look, Dad, a driver!' He was a bit shocked.”

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