Driving a driverless Waymo in Phoenix over the vacations was enjoyable however unsettling


Like many travelers on vacation, I got stuck in my struggle to get home last week.

I live in San Francisco and have been to Phoenix with my family. We chose this as our New Years hangout so we could attend the college football fiesta bowl that played Notre Dame against my brother’s former squad, Oklahoma State.

My flight home was planned for Monday morning. But because of severe winter storms in parts of the country and personnel shortages of the airlines due to the rapidly spreading Covid-Omicron variant, it was delayed three times.

Instead of rummaging around the airport, I decided to do some work and have fun doing it.

Phoenix is ​​the only market Waymo currently offers its Waymo One self-driving rideshare service to the general public, although test drives are possible in San Francisco. As an Alphabet Beat reporter, I thought – when could it be better to give it a try? No employees, no PR staff and no camera team. Just me, my cell phone, and a minivan with no driver.

The last time I rode a Waymo was in 2019, a year after Waymo One started offering tours to select drivers. I visited the company’s Phoenix office and drove a self-driving car that at the time could only drive with a safety driver at the wheel.

Since then, Waymo has raised $ 5.5 billion in funding from investors including Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowitz, and T. Rowe Price. It also launched Waymo Via, a local delivery service, and announced it would test self-driving vehicles in San Francisco and New York.

The company says its cars have driven more than 20 billion miles in simulations and over 20 million miles on public roads.

Get a car

Before I could get up close and personal with a Waymo One, I first had to find out where to pick one up.

Waymo only reaches part of the vast Phoenix area. I knew this because I tried to order a car at the beginning of my stay, but the app told me I was out of the service area. According to its website, Waymo One operates in suburbs including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.

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The Waymo One app shows the user a map of the company’s restricted service area in the Phoenix area, which they can view before ordering a vehicle.

Screenshot of the Waymo One app by Jennifer Elias

I already had an account from my previous unsuccessful attempt. To register, I had to connect to my Google account by entering my Gmail address and password. Next, I added my credit card information.

Then I went to open the card to summon a vehicle. When I tried to do this a few days earlier, a message came up that said: “Autonomous specialists accompany trips temporarily, that is, someone is in the driver’s seat.” I had to click OK before I could continue. That 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: “Waymo is opening its fully driverless service in Phoenix to the general public.”

Julianne McGoldrick, a Waymo spokeswoman, told CNBC in an email that people are behind the wheel “in bad weather”. However, it hadn’t rained at the time I received the notification.

The rest of the setup was straightforward, much like signing up for Lyft or Uber.

On Monday, the day of my actual Waymo trip, I took a 15-minute Lyft drive from my hotel near the airport to the Raintree Ranch Center in Chandler so I could finally be within reach to order a car. At the mall, I got a cup of coffee at Starbucks and opened the Waymo One app.

For my desired location, I selected a Trader Joe’s store several miles away on the northern edge of the service area. The app estimated a car would be available in 10 minutes and kept me updated on the progress every minute. It showed a small photo of the car, a Chrysler minivan, that was en route.

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The Waymo One app shows a time frame in which the ride is expected.

Screenshot of the Waymo One app by Jennifer Elias

The ride

I couldn’t find the car at first.

The map showed me where it was, but since I didn’t know the area it didn’t help much. The app gave me the option to tap the horn button. As soon as I did that, I heard the honking loud and clear and walked towards the sound, which was a few hundred yards from where I was standing.

I approached the van and was surprised again. It was parked illegally in a fire brigade strip, which was recognizable by the red painted curb. It also partially blocked a lane used by cars entering and exiting the mall. A car had to drive around the Waymo to get into the parking lot.

The van had the hazard lights on, the Waymo logo on the side, and a dashboard with my initials on it. I pressed the door handle, jumped in, and buckled 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.

On a partition it said, “Please stay at the back. Don’t touch the steering wheel.” That led me to wonder if Waymo had ever seen an attempted kidnapping, a potential risk I hadn’t thought of until that moment. Waymo said in an email after the story was first published, “We always had these stickers on our vehicles to warn drivers not to touch the controls for safety, not as a result of an incident.”

The cup holders contained hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. In the seat pocket in front of me was an N95 mask that was the same aqua color as the Waymo logo.

I wanted to put on some music but the screen asked me to download the Google Assistant app so I gave up. A Bluetooth function or a USB plug-in would have been more convenient.

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The Waymo vehicle was a fully autonomous vehicle with no driver in the front seat.

Jennifer Elias

The eight-kilometer drive took 14 minutes on motorways and some streets in the neighborhood. The cost was $ 10.77, or a little less than $ 1 per minute.

The ride was smooth for the most part, making it easy for me to avoid spilling my coffee. However, there was a difficult moment towards the end.

Just as the car approached Trader Joe’s, he came to an abrupt stop and hit the brakes for what appeared to be a pedestrian. I almost got whiplash and I was especially grateful for the working seat belt. The jolt was surprising as the car did not go more than seven miles an hour in a parking lot.

McGoldrick, the Waymo spokesperson, wrote that “it is definitely not the experience we are looking for” adding, “Our team is reviewing this event and we will use it to improve.”

After the gasp – and an audible “Jesus!” (See video below) – I made myself comfortable again until the car let me get out in front of Trader Joe’s. The dropping point was in another fire road next to a red-painted curb.

“We have arrived,” said the recorded voice. “Please check your surroundings before exiting the vehicle and remember to close the doors after exiting.”

McGoldrick made no comment on why the car continued to be parked in clearly marked fire zones, saying the team is investigating.

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 to today’s San Francisco, where I will often see several test cars on the streets 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.

On the whole, the experience was much more relaxed than my previous ride in 2019 with a safety driver. At this point the car felt too cautious. He drove slower than the traffic and waited what felt like an eternity before turning unprotected.

This time it felt natural. Instead of entering a corner at an icy pace, it moved up quickly and accelerated at the right moment. The car didn’t seem to attract the looks of other drivers as much as it did two years ago, probably because local residents are used to seeing them on the road.

Entrusting my life to a completely driverless car, however, required a rethink. Watching the foot pedals move up and down and the wheel turning left and right was annoying at times, although I’ve followed the company closely and seen the tech several times.

Taking this hurdle with the general public could be one of the biggest challenges for Waymo. I posted a 10-second video of the drive on Instagram, where viewers could see the steering wheel and foot pedals moving. I got dozens of direct messages, mostly composed of “WTF” and “How was it ?!”

I also spoke to several Phoenix residents to learn their perspectives. Little did some of them know that the service was even available to them through an app. Others said they knew about Waymo One but didn’t want to try it out. Most recognized that at some point autonomous cars would be the norm.

Waymo is now 13 years old. It has taken so long for self-driving cars to function smoothly on city streets in part of a US market. Even if it is an impressive technological achievement to get this far yourself, ubiquity – if it ever comes – seems a long way off.

CLOCK: Alphabet’s Waymo Closes $ 2.5 Billion Fundraising Round

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