(Bloomberg) — While in Arizona over the holidays to visit family, I drove to the suburbs southeast of Phoenix to hail a ride in one of Waymo’s driverless vehicles. I’ve been in one before, accompanied by a security driver, but this was the first time I’ve been back in the state since Waymo went fully driverless with its public rides in 2020 – I wanted to see for myself what it’s like, one Ghost behind the wheel. So on the first Sunday in January, I drove with my dad and my two kids to a Walmart lot in Tempe, just inside Waymo One’s 50-square-mile service area. It seemed like a suitable place for my first robo-taxi ride. Here are my five takeaways:
The future is here: It’s been more than a decade since Alphabet Inc., then Google, launched its self-driving car project. In that time, ambitious rhetoric has given way to sober realizations about how difficult it is to build and scale a robo-taxi service. Still, Google’s vision has become a reality, at least in this small part of the world. Hailing a driverless Waymo was as easy as hailing an Uber. I downloaded an app on my iPhone, entered my billing information, entered my desired destination, and then waited. When the empty Chrysler Pacifica pulled into the lot ten minutes later with my name on a display in the windshield, it felt like a magic trick.
Robots don’t perform high-touch service: I was hoping to take my dad along with my nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter on the ride, and figured this is one of Waymo’s fleet of seven-seat Pacificas and could fit all five of us. But Waymo doesn’t (understandably) allow passengers up front and keeps a child seat in the back row, making the middle seat unavailable too, leaving three places plus the infant carrier. Since my children are too big for seat belts, we had to leave my father behind. Presumably a human driver could have moved the child seat out of the way to make room for my dad, but Waymo’s sensors and algorithms were no help and the company doesn’t allow passengers to remove the seat.
Turning left is tough: Our destination was another Walmart about ten miles away in Chandler. If I had been behind the wheel, I would have turned left out of the parking lot to go east on Southern Ave, one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Tempe and Chandler. But the Waymo turned right and then wound its way through a residential area to an intersection where it could use a traffic light to turn left. The same thing happened on our return trip. Instead of turning left onto Southern, the robot drove past it, turned left at a less-traveled intersection, and then backed up to turn right onto Southern. It seemed to make every effort to avoid the most difficult links. “As we continue to develop the Waymo Driver, it will be trained to avoid circumstances that may cause discomfort to passengers,” company spokesman Katherine Barna said in an email. Because unprotected left turns across multiple lanes in high-speed traffic can require sudden accelerations or long waits, Barna says the system can choose a smoother route.
People are in the loop: after a brief stop at the Chandler Walmart, we called our return trip and within minutes another Pacifica arrived. As we pulled out of the parking lot, a voice came over the speakers. Someone from Waymo’s driver support wanted to make sure my daughter was properly buckled in her back, although I was briefly confused when the remote helper referred to her as a ‘baby’. The interruption was a reminder that we were being watched and that even without a driver it takes people to run a car service. We would hear back from driver support before the end of the trip.
Edge cases are everywhere: as we neared the end of our return, the thrill of seeing the wheel turning began to fade. Over nearly 20 miles and about 45 minutes of straight, sunny roads (round-trip fare: $33.28), the robot mostly drove like a human, except never exceeding the speed limit. Then, a few blocks from the end, we encountered a problem: A soda refill truck of all things had parked in the right lane in front of a Taco Bell and its driver had left a cone on the street. The Waymo stayed in the right lane until it was only a few car lengths behind the truck, then hesitated to change lanes. At that point, an automated voice came over the intercom and told us that the “Road Assistance Team is two minutes away” and to stay in the car unless there was an “urgent need” to exit. The robot driver was apparently at a loss. Seconds later, before help arrived, the Waymo found his courage and sped into the nearest lane and around the truck. A driver support agent called shortly after to confirm everything was fine. If the robot hadn’t been able to continue on its own, Barna said, someone from roadside assistance would have gotten into the vehicle and driven us the rest of the way manually.
We ended up interacting with two people over two rides, just like we would have on old-fashioned rides. It’s hard to tell where Waymo goes from here. I wrote this time last year to anticipate that it and other autonomous vehicle developers will start offering ridesharing services in more places. That hasn’t happened yet, although there are rumblings in California. The hiccups during my rides in Arizona might give some insight as to why.
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