LIKE FIGHTER JETS, each Cruise driverless car has a name — Bigfoot, Salsa, Firefly — stenciled on its skin. Mine is named Banana Slug. 

It was my first driverless drive.  

I had gotten myself into the pilot program that covered a portion of San Francisco between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5:30 in the morning. Seconds after service opened for the night, I used the app to call a ride. 

A completely vacant car pulled up outside the restaurant. The vehicle was red and white and looked more like a pizza delivery car than a livery service. I had seen these cars for years, but always with a person in the driver’s seat; now they were taking passengers and the driver’s seat was empty. 

The car was locked. You had to use the app to open the doors.  

There really wasn’t anyone inside, though I looked around carefully.  

A pre-recorded voice — not very different than the default voice on my car’s navigation system — told me to buckle up, but I wasn’t welcomed by name.  

I try starting a conversation. 

“Banana Slug,” I say, “thank you for picking me up. This is very exciting.”  

I get no response. 

I am mildly disappointed. Siri and Alexa engage me by name. ChatGPT writes short stories at my command. This feels as impersonal as if I am getting into an elevator. 

But if the Slug seems unfriendly or, perhaps more precisely, uninterested in me, I console myself with that thought that Slug is focused on the task at hand: driving me 30 blocks to my home through the nighttime streets of San Francisco.  

I forgive Slug for the studied lack of engagement and admire the clinical precision of its driving. No California rolling stops for the Slug; we mark a complete standstill at every stop sign. And at a four way stop — San Francisco is riddled with them — Slug won’t start across until any cars coming from the left or right have come to their own full stop. There is a vaguely insulting awkwardness to this; Slug clearly believes human drivers cannot be trusted to obey the rules of the road. 

Cruise cars are electric and have that startling quietness of golf carts starting up, as if you were suspended in a pool and dipped your ears below the surface of water. 

When the intersection has settled to the speed of a graveyard, Slug moves on.  

My mental word cloud is populated with “decisive,” “precise,” “deliberate,” “methodical,” and “calculated.” 

This is no thrill ride, but I find it thrilling. 

On the streets of San Francisco in a self-driving vehicle. (Image courtesy of Cruise/YouTube)

A dozen years ago I moved to San Francisco and was just settling in when I heard about the newest Left Coast craziness called ride-sharing. The concept was being pioneered by Uber and a company that used cars with great pink plush mustaches. You used your phone to send out a call like an SOS and some rando would show up in his or her own car — a rando car — and take you wherever you wanted. And when you arrived you didn’t have to dig cash out of your pants — you just jumped out and went on with your business. The tip was included. No making change. No fuss. The app did it all.  

The most impossible part of the idea was that you didn’t schedule in advance. When you were ready to go, you tapped the app and trusted a car to show up. I’d come to SF from Philly where the crumbling fleets of cabs operated by crumbling bankrupt companies could never be relied on to arrive on time, even when scheduled a day in advance. The idea of an on-demand service fulfilled by randos was so fabulously ridiculous that I was confident that it would never, ever, work in practice.  

And yet how wonderful the thought. Your own private car and driver at hand, and whenever you wanted it, you could just summon it. A vision as empowering and liberating as it was delusional.  

I couldn’t wait to try it.  

I took Lyfts and Ubers everywhere and I was soon booking a trip from a company called Sidecar that billed itself as the “People’s Uber.”  

My driver, a cheerful character named Mickey who wore a faded sweatshirt with the word “State” across his chest, drove me the 30 miles to SFO, chatting happily all the way.  

I wrote a story called Riding Sidecar about Mickey and the ride-sharing industry. The technology was still so new that the editor who published the piece insisted that I put an umlaut over the U in Uber because that was how über was properly spelled.  

My iPhone ran out of juice two minutes after the Slug started its voyage.  

While I wasn’t particularly nervous about the trip, I wondered if I would be able to open the doors without the app.  

It bothered me that I could not engage Slug in a conversation. In the ordinary world I would ask my driver if he had an iPhone charger. A high percentage of the time I would get a frayed white cord that delivered some juice, not much, but enough to keep the app running.  

Now I was powerless, the most frightening state in the modern world.  

I was left with only the resources I had been born with. 

Slug did not care. Focused on the formidable task of navigating San Francisco’s unpredictable nighttime terrain, it was indifferent to my human concerns.  

Across the street — a very wide street — a car door opened. The driver stepped out. Slug noticed and though we were separated by twenty horizontal feet and more than forty in forward distance, slowed to a respectful stop. I thought it a generous, if old fashioned, response, like laying a jacket in a puddle for a damsel to cross, but somehow quite charming.  

A few minutes later, Slug took a sharp left and right swerve to avoid a pothole. The move was as nimble as the overall trip was stately and processional. In a pinch Slug had the moves. 

The promo material on the Cruise app was written in that friendly, casual tone that is the language of new tech and it cheerily encouraged me to take and post photos and videos of my ride. My dead phone prevented that, but there wasn’t much to photograph. A still photo would just show the inside of an empty car seemingly stopped on a dark street. Video might do better but there was no audio to record unless it was my solo narrative and worse there was no visual to put the experience in context. Out the window the streetscape was passing by — you could video that — but inside the only action was the driver’s wheel spinning left or right. Remarkable in the car, boring on a video. It wouldn’t sustain interest for the length of an Instagram reel.  

Turns out that you can’t video a driverless driver. 

It turns out that you can’t take a picture of a driver in a driverless car. (Image courtesy of General Motors/YouTube)

“It is probably time,” Micky said, “to tell you about my game.” 

“What game?” I asked. 

“Do you like spelling?” 

“Well enough.” 

He fumbled into glove box and handed me what looked like a deck of cards. It was in a little box and said HEARZ on it. 

“Is it a card game?” 

“No.” He said, quickly and slightly over-emphatically, as if I had missed the obvious point. “It’s a word game. So I say a word and you have to write down all the words that you hear in the word.”

Mickey explained the rules at great length as we cruised down Highway 101.

“How’s the game doing?”  

“Oh its fine,” he said, unenthusiastically. “I have got it in about 50 stores. But I see it more as an app.”

Slug followed a route to my home that was unlike any route I would have plotted. You couldn’t argue with going straight for 30ish blocks on California but when it came to the left that would have taken us one block over to the street on which my place is located, Slug just kept going. One block later, it passed another left that would have allowed it to wrap back on itself in a block and deliver me neatly to my doorstep, albeit across the street, but the Slug plowed forward.  

If I had had a working phone it would have been of little moment, but when Slug ignored the obvious route — the proper route — I flashed on the possibility that Slug had gone rogue. Without a working phone I could not use the app to reach someone who could reign it in.  

I remembered that episode on Silicon Valley where Jared, the tall and painfully earnest tech wannabe, got in a driverless car that silently drove him into a shipping container that was then loaded onto a vessel bound for China. If I couldn’t open the doors, where would Slug take me?  

When Slug ignored the obvious route — the proper route — I flashed on the possibility that Slug had gone rogue.

I recalled that J. Edgar Hoover, the former head of the FBI, famously forbid his drivers from making left turns, a response to being rear-ended while turning on a trip to California in the 1950s.  

I wondered if Cruise had taken that into account when writing the navigational instructions that were embedded in Slug’s DNA, but that hypothesis failed when it reached Franklin. Slug promptly took a left and then another left so it could traverse the several needless blocks required to get me home.  

I was puzzled. The Hoover hypothesis had seemed possible until that left on Franklin. Why was the Franklin left given greater dignity than the other lefts the Slug had spurned?  

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized Franklin was a one-way street and that allowed Slug to turn without crossing oncoming traffic in the opposite lane. Another charming if inefficient safety feature, I guess.  

When Mickey dropped me at the airport I discovered that with Sidecar you didn’t pay a fee like Uber, you made a donation. That was integral to the company’s argument it was not just an unregulated fleet of taxis.  

“Mickey,” I asked, “is the tip included, like on Uber?” 

“Nah, the donation is just recommended. You can raise it up for a tip if you want.” 

Mickey came over to my side to make sure I could find the slider on the screen. 

“Well,” I said. “Let’s see. I pay a taxi $65, how about I pay you $55? Would that be okay?” 

“That would be great! Of course, I will give you a five.” 


“Five stars.” 

“You are going to give me five stars?” 


“You mean you rate the customers?” 

“Oh yeah. Of course.” 

My concern about opening the doors was unfounded.  

When we arrived, the doors unlatched with a satisfying thunk.  

I took my time exiting; in just one ride I had already internalized the idea that I didn’t need to hurry up so the driver wouldn’t be delayed. Avoiding rudeness was irrelevant. You can’t be rude to a driverless car, even one who has been personalized with the name Banana Slug.  

I took my time getting out, checking out the interior now that the internal lights were ablaze. I saw the tidy seats, the plexiglass that divided front from back. I wondered if I would have been permitted to sit in the front passenger seat. Could I have sat in the driver’s seat? What if I had laid down in the back and decided to nap? Or if I over-indulged and passed out there? Would I have laid there all night, snoring and twitching and drooling in the back seat watched over, as in the Richard Brautigan poem, by a machine of loving grace? 

Cruising with Cruise in San Francisco. (Photo by waltarrrrr/Flickr)

I climbed out, reluctantly, and stood on the curb. Past, present and future collided. 

I didn’t give Slug a tip, and it did not seem to bother him. I liked Slug, I truly did, but he was no Mickey. Not even close. 

Modestly, precisely, methodically, Slug returned to active duty and drove to the stop sign ahead. While he was paused there, another Cruise driverless vehicle passed me and pulled up just behind Slug. For a moment — a long moment — they stood together under the dim San Francisco streetlights, like backlit men in hats from an old Fred Lyon photograph.  

Were they side to side, they would have been just like two taxis stopped at a New York traffic light, drivers yelling friendly insults to each other from wide open windows.  

The Cruise cars were head to rear so that did not seem likely, but in my mind, that is just what was happening.  

Slug was beaming news of my ride to the algorithm behind him. Slug did not give me five stars. No he was blowing wind about the schlemiel whose phone died on route and how he thought he might get stuck in a container shipped to China. What an idiot! Meanwhile, the other driverless was laughing and recounting that his jabloney spent the entire ride trying to take a selfie in the backseat that somehow got the steering wheel in the picture.  

I could hear them hooting and guffawing.  

They lingered for another moment under the eerie San Francisco streetlights, enjoying the camaraderie, pumped up with the certainty that they were leading the way into a dazzling if perilous future, one that their ill-provisioned passengers could only remotely grasp. 

About the author

Bay City News Foundation writer Joe Dworetzky is a San Francisco resident and frequent contributor to Local News Matters. See more of his short stories and cartoons at