(Bloomberg) -- While in Arizona to visit family over the holidays, I drove out to the suburbs southeast of Phoenix to hail a ride in one of Waymo’s driverless vehicles. I had been in one before, accompanied by a safety driver, but this was my first time back in the state since Waymo went fully driverless with its public rides in 2020 — I wanted to see for myself what it was like to have a ghost behind the wheel. So, on the first Sunday in January, I took my father and my two children to a Walmart parking lot in Tempe, just inside Waymo One’s 50-square-mile service area. It seemed as good a place as any for my first robo-taxi ride. Here are my five takeaways:
The future has arrived:It’s been more than a decade since Alphabet Inc., then called Google, founded its self-driving car project. In that time, ambitious rhetoric has given way to sober realizations about just how hard it is to build and scale a robo-taxi service. Still, at least in this small slice of the world, Google’s vision has become real. Hailing a driverless Waymo was as simple as hailing an Uber. I downloaded an app to my iPhone, provided my payment information, entered my desired destination, then waited. When the empty Chrysler Pacifica pulled into the parking lot ten minutes later, with my name on a display in the windshield, it felt like a magic trick.
Robots don’t do high-touch service: I had hoped to bring my father along on the ride as well as my nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter and figured that one of Waymo’s fleet of seven-seat Pacificas could accommodate all five of us. But Waymo (understandably) doesn’t allow passengers in the front and keeps a child seat in the back row, which also makes the middle seat unavailable, so that leaves three spots plus the baby seat. Since my kids are too big for harness seats, we had to leave my dad 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.
Left turns are hard:Our destination was another Walmart about ten miles away in Chandler. If I had been at the wheel, I would have taken a left turn out of the parking lot to head east on Southern Ave, one of the main roads running through Tempe and Chandler. But the Waymo took a right and then wound through a residential neighborhood to an intersection where it could make the left turn with the help of a traffic light. A similar thing happened on our return trip. Instead of turning left onto Southern, the robot drove past it, made a left at a less busy intersection, and then wound back to make a right onto Southern. It seemed to go out of its way to avoid the trickiest lefts. “As we continue to develop the Waymo Driver, it is trained to avoid circumstances that can cause discomfort to passengers,” said company spokesperson Katherine Barna in an email. Since unprotected left turns across multiple lanes of high-speed traffic can require sudden accelerations or long waits, said Barna, the system may opt for a smoother route.
The humans are in the loop:After a brief stop at the Chandler Walmart, we hailed our return ride and a different Pacifica arrived within a couple minutes. As we pulled out of the parking lot, a voice came over the speakers. Someone from Waymo’s rider support wanted to make sure that my daughter was properly buckled in the back, though 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 drivers, it takes humans to run a car service. We would hear from rider support again before the end of the journey.
Edge cases are everywhere: As we neared the end of our return, the thrill of seeing the wheel turn itself had begun to fade. Over almost 20 miles and about 45 minutes of straight, sunny roads (roundtrip fare: $33.28), the robot mostly drove like a human, except that it never broke the speed limit. Then, a few blocks before the end, we encountered a problem: A carbonation refill truck, of all things, had parked in the right lane in front of a Taco Bell and its driver had put a cone down in the road. The Waymo stayed in the right lane until it was just a couple car lengths behind the truck and then hesitated to switch lanes. At that point, an automated voice came over the intercom and told us that the “roadside assistance team was two minutes away” and to remain in the car unless there was an “urgent need” to exit. The robot driver, apparently, had been stumped. Seconds later, before help arrived, the Waymo found its nerve and nosed into the next lane and around the truck. Shortly after, a rider support employee called in to confirm that all was well. If the robot had been unable to continue on its own, said Barna, someone from roadside assistance would have boarded the vehicle and manually driven us the rest of the way.
In the end, over two rides, we interacted with two humans, just as we would have in old-fashioned ride hail. It’s hard to say where Waymo goes from here. I wrote last year around this time to expect it and other autonomous vehicle developers to begin offering ride-hailing services in more places. That hasn’t happened yet, though there are rumblings in California. The hiccups during my rides in Arizona may provide a glimpse at why.
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