Here’s what it was like to ride in a Driverless Waymo in Phoenix
Like many vacationers, I found myself stuck last week in my efforts to get home.
I live in San Francisco and I was in Phoenix with my family. We picked this as our New Years’ hangout so we could attend the college football Fiesta Bowl, pitting Notre Dame against my brother’s old team, Oklahoma State.
My return flight was scheduled for Monday morning. But due to severe winter storms in parts of the country and staff shortages at airlines due to the rapidly spreading variant of Covid omicron, it has been delayed three times.
Rather than hanging out at the airport, I decided to work and have fun at the same time.
Phoenix is the only market where Waymo currently operates its self-help service, Waymo One. As an Alphabet reporter, I thought to myself: what better time to give it a go? No employee, no public relations team, and no film crew. Just me, my phone and a driverless minibus.
The last time I rode a Waymo was in 2019, a year after Waymo One started offering trips to some riders. I visited the company’s Phoenix office and took a ride in a self-driving car, which at the time could only be operated with a safety driver behind the wheel.
Since then, Waymo has raised $ 5.5 billion in funding from investors such as Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowitz and T. Rowe Price. It also launched Waymo Via, a local delivery service, and announced it was testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco and New York.
The company claims its cars have driven more than 20 billion kilometers in simulation and more than 20 million kilometers on public roads.
Get a car
Before I could experience a Waymo One firsthand, I first needed to find out where I could buy one.
Waymo only reaches part of the vast area of Phoenix. I knew this because earlier in my stay I had tried to order a car, but the app told me I was out of its service area. According to its website, Waymo One operates in the suburbs, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
The Waymo One app displays a map of the company’s limited service area in the Phoenix area for the user to view before ordering a vehicle.
Screenshot of the Waymo One app by Jennifer Elias
I already had an account of my previous unsuccessful attempt. To register, I had to log into my Google user account by entering my Gmail address and password. Then I added my credit card information.
Then I went to open the map to summon a vehicle. When I tried this a few days earlier, a message popped up saying “Autonomous specialists are temporarily accompanying the trips, which means someone will be in the driver’s seat.” I had to click “OK” before continuing. This was a bit of a surprise because in October 2020 then CEO John Krafcik, who left the company in April, said in a blog post that “Waymo is opening its fully driverless service to the general public in Phoenix “.
Julianne McGoldrick, spokesperson for Waymo, told CNBC in an email that humans were sitting behind the wheel “in bad weather.” However, it had not rained by the time I received the notification.
The rest of the setup was straightforward, similar to signing up for Lyft or Uber.
On Monday, the day of my real Waymo trip, I made a 15-minute drive to Lyft from my hotel near the airport to the Raintree Ranch Center in Chandler, so I could finally be within reach of ordering a car. At the mall, I grabbed a cup of coffee from Starbucks and opened the Waymo One app.
For my desired location, I chose a Trader Joe’s store several miles away, towards the northern edge of the service area. The app estimated that a car would be available in 10 minutes and kept me updated on its progress down to the minute. He showed a small photo of the car, a Chrysler minivan, that was on the way.
The Waymo One app displays a time frame to expect the ride.
Screenshot of the Waymo One app by Jennifer Elias
I couldn’t find the car at first.
The map showed me where it was, but since I was unfamiliar with the area it didn’t help much. The app gave me the option to press the “honk” button. As soon as I did, I heard the horn loud and clear and started walking towards the sound, which was a few hundred yards from where I was standing.
I walked over to the van and was surprised again. It was illegally parked in a fire department lane, which stood out from the brightly red sidewalk. It was also partially blocking a lane used by cars entering and exiting the mall. A car had to bypass the Waymo to enter the parking lot.
The van had its hazard lights on, the Waymo logo on the side, and a dashboard displaying my initials. I clicked on the doorknob, jumped in and fastened my seat belt. A woman’s voice greeted me. The passenger seat in front of me had a screen that showed a map and the car on the road.
A score read: “Please stay in the back. Don’t touch the steering wheel.” It made me wonder if Waymo had ever suffered an attempted hijacking, a potential risk I had not considered until then. The cup holders contained hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. In the seat pocket in front of me was an N95 mask in the same aqua color as the Waymo logo.
I wanted to put on some music but the screen was forcing me to download the Google Assistant app, so I gave up. A Bluetooth function or a USB plug-in would have been more practical.
The Waymo vehicle was a completely autonomous vehicle without a driver in the front seat.
The five mile trip took 14 minutes on freeways and some neighborhood streets. The cost was $ 10.77, or just under $ 1 per minute.
For the most part, the ride went smoothly which allowed me to comfortably avoid spilling my coffee. However, there was a difficult moment towards the end.
Just as the car approached Trader Joe’s, it came to an abrupt halt, slamming the brake for an apparent pedestrian. It almost gave me a whiplash and made me especially thankful for the seat belt that worked. The jerk was surprising, as the car was not going more than seven miles an hour in a parking lot.
McGoldrick, the spokesperson for Waymo, wrote that “this is definitely not the experience we are looking for” and added: “Our team is investigating this event and we will use it to improve.”
After we gasp – and let out a “Jesus!” »Audible. (see video below) – I settled back in until the car let go of me in front of Trader Joe’s. The disembarkation point was in another fire station, next to a sidewalk painted red.
“We have arrived,” the recorded voice told me. “Please check your surroundings before exiting the vehicle and remember to close the doors after exiting.”
McGoldrick did not provide a comment on why the car was keeping parking in clearly marked fire zones, and said the team was looking into the matter.
A slightly different feeling
Despite spending a week in the Phoenix area, I saw very few Waymos. It was a stark contrast to my visit in 2019 and now to San Francisco, where I will often see several test cars on the roads in one day. The company says it has 300 to 400 vehicles in the Phoenix area, including Chrysler Pacifica vans and some Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs.
Overall the experience was much more relaxing than my previous ride in 2019 with a security driver. At this point, the car was feeling overly cautious. He went slower than the speed of the traffic and waited for what seemed like forever before making an unprotected turn.
This time it was natural. Instead of entering a turn at an icy pace, he quickly got up and accelerated at the right time. The car didn’t seem to attract the attention of other drivers like it did two years ago, possibly because residents are used to seeing them on the road.
Yet entrusting my life to a fully autonomous car has required a change of mind. Watching the pedals move up and down and the wheel itself spinning left and right was unsettling at times, even though I have been following the company up close and have seen the technology work a few times.
Removing this obstacle with the general public can be one of Waymo’s biggest challenges. On Instagram, I posted a 10-second video of the ride, which allowed viewers to see the steering wheel and pedals move. I received dozens of direct messages which consisted mostly of “WTF” and “How was that ?!”
I have also spoken to several residents of Phoenix to get their perspectives. Some did not even know that the service was accessible to them through an app. Others said they were familiar with Waymo One, but were reluctant to try it. Most agreed that self-driving cars would eventually become the norm.
Waymo is now 13 years old. It took that long for self-driving cars to run smoothly on city streets in part of an American market. While even going this far is an impressive technological feat, ubiquity – if it ever happens – makes it seem like it’s still a long way off.
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