Autonomous vehicles are bad for humanity — on Shabbat or any other day

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A recent J. article discussed whether driverless cars are “kosher” for Shabbat. In my view they are not kosher at all — on Shabbat or any other day.

When I first became aware of these cars with the odd spinning cameras on their roofs and sides, I always saw a person in the driver seat. I assumed they were driving around town to update Google Maps or something similar. As all San Franciscans are now likely aware, these were Waymo cars (owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and were soon joined by Cruise (from General Motors). These cars have now become a common sight in our city, tootling around town driverless. I often see them on my street. Robotaxi service has become legal in San Francisco.

But these vehicles are not ready for public roads. Time and again, they have proven unsafe, unable to appropriately negotiate pedestrians and even emergency vehicles.

Driverless taxi services are regulated by state agencies, the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission, which have granted permissions despite opposition by city officials. There have been accidents involving autonomous vehicles (AVs) and complaints from first responders about AVs suddenly stopping in place, sometimes blocking fire trucks or ambulances on emergency calls. On Aug. 15, an AV drove into a city paving project and got stuck in the wet concrete.

On Aug. 17, an AV collided with a fire truck, resulting in DMV’s request that Cruise reduce its fleet in the city by half, to which Cruise agreed. But safety is not my only concern about driverless cars.

Once, I was about to cross the street at a complicated intersection near the Kaiser Permanente medical complex on O’Farrell Street. An empty car pulled up to my right. Normally, I would have made eye contact with a driver to make sure he or she was aware of me before crossing. But seeing the vehicle was empty, I instinctively froze and remained on the curb for some time, until the vehicle apparently “decided” it was OK to proceed across the intersection in front of me. I then crossed the street.

This awkward interaction is just another example of how technology is replacing human labor and human contact throughout society. In this case, paid drivers are losing income, while our moments of person-to-person contact are disappearing. I first became aware of a similar pattern when automated teller machines began replacing bank tellers in the 1970s.

Convenient time-savers for customers and significant money-savers for banks, ATMs took jobs away from bank employees, while removing human contact from many bank transactions. Later came self-checkout lines in stores, with similar effects.

As for driverless cars, they are not good for humanity, which means to me they are not kosher. I intend to stay as far away from them as I can.

Miriam Menzel

Dr. Miriam Menzel is a retired pediatrician. She has lived in San Francisco since 1989.