- With my flight home delayed this week, I stopped at Waymo One to check on the company’s progress with self-driving cars in the Phoenix area.
- The ride was vastly improved in 2019 from my previous experience, but there were still some bugs.
- At pick-up and drop-off, the minivan is parked in a fire lane where cars are not allowed to stop.
Like many travelers on vacation, I was stuck last week in my attempt to get back home.
I live in San Francisco and was in Phoenix with my family. We chose this as our freshman year’s rendezvous so we could participate in college football party bowl, pitting Notre Dame against my brother’s former squad, Oklahoma State.
My flight home was scheduled for Monday morning. But due to severe winter storms in some parts of the country and a shortage of airline staff from the fast-spreading Kovid Omicron variant, it was delayed three times.
Instead of walking around the airport, I decided to do some work and have some fun in the process.
Phoenix is the only market where Waymo currently operates its self-driving ride-hailing service, Waymo One, As Alphabet beat the reporter, I wondered – what better time to give it a shot? No staff, no public relations staff and no camera crew. Just me, my phone and the driverless minivan.
The last time I rode Waymo was in 2019, a year after Waymo One began offering travel to select riders. I visited the company’s Phoenix office and rode in a self-driving car that at the time could only operate with a safety driver behind 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 a local delivery service, Waymo Via, and announced that it is testing self-driving vehicles in San Francisco and New York,
The company says its cars have covered more than 20 billion miles in simulations and more than 20 million miles on public roads.
Before I could experience the Waymo One firsthand, I had to first figure out where I could pick it up.
Waymo only reaches a portion of the vast Phoenix area. I knew this because earlier in my stay I tried to order a car, but the app told me I was out of its service area. according to this WebsiteOf course, Waymo One operates in the suburbs, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
I already had an account from my previous failed attempt. To register, I had to connect to my Google user account by entering my Gmail address and password. Next, I added my credit card information.
Then I went to open the map to call a vehicle. When I tried this a few days ago, a message popped up saying, “Autonomous experts are temporarily with the ride, which means someone will be in the driver’s seat.” I had to click “OK” before proceeding. This came as little 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 completely driverless service to the general public in Phoenix.”
Waymo spokesman Julian McGoldrick told Businesshala in an email that humans sit behind the wheel “during inclement weather.” However, it didn’t rain around the time I got the notification.
The rest of the setup was straightforward, similar to signing up for Lyft or Uber.
On Monday, the day of my actual Waymo trip, I took a 15-minute lift ride from my hotel near the airport to the Raintree Ranch Center in Chandler, so that I could finally be in range to order a car. In the shopping center, I grabbed a cup of coffee at Starbucks and opened the Waymo One app.
For my desired location, I chose a Trader Joe’s store several miles away, toward the north edge of the service area. The app estimated a car would be available in 10 minutes, and kept me posted on its progress by the minute. It showed a small picture of the car, a Chrysler minivan, which was on the way.
At first I didn’t get the car.
The map showed me where it was, but since I wasn’t familiar with the area it didn’t help much. The app gave me the option to tap the “onk” button. As soon as I did, I heard the horn loud and clear and began to walk towards the sound, which was a few hundred feet away from where I was standing.
I approached the van and then was surprised. It was illegally parked in a fire lane, evident from the brightly colored red edge. It was also partially blocking a lane used by cars entering and exiting the shopping centre. A car had to go around Waymo to get to the parking lot.
The van was fitted with hazard lights, the Waymo logo on the side and a dashboard with my initials. I clicked on the door handle, jumped up and buckled on the seatbelt. A woman’s voice welcomed me. In front of me in the passenger seat was a screen showing a map of the road and the car.
One partition read, “Please stay behind. Don’t touch the steering wheel.” This made me wonder whether Waymo had experienced an attempted hijacking before, a potential risk I hadn’t considered until that moment. The cupholders had 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 had to download the Google Assistant app for the screen, so I gave up. A Bluetooth feature or USB plug-in would have been more convenient.
The five-mile ride lasted 14 minutes on highways and some neighborhood streets. The cost was $10.77, or a little less than $1 per minute.
For the most part, the ride was smooth, allowing me to comfortably avoid spilling my coffee. However, towards the end there was a difficult moment.
As the car approached Trader Joe’s, it suddenly stopped, slamming the brakes for an obvious pedestrian. It almost gave me whiplash and made me especially grateful for the working seatbelt. The shock was surprising, as the car was not going over seven mph in the parking lot.
Waymo spokesman McGoldrick wrote that “this is definitely not the experience we strive for” and added, “Our team is looking into this incident, and we will use it to improve.”
After a gasp – and an audible “Jesus!” (Watch video below) – I turned back inside until the car had let me through in front of Trader Joe’s. The drop-off spot was in another fire lane, next to a red curb.
“We have arrived,” the recorded voice told me. “Please check your surroundings before exiting the vehicle and remember to lock the doors after exiting.”
McGoldrick did not comment on why the car was parked in clearly marked fire areas, and said the team was looking into it.
Despite spending a week in the Phoenix area, I saw very few Waymos. This was a stark contrast to my trip in 2019 and current San Francisco, where I often see multiple test cars on the roads in a 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 in 2019 was a lot more relaxing than my previous ride with Safety Driver. At the time, the car was feeling overly alert. It slowed down to traffic speed and waited for what felt like an eternity before taking an unsafe turn.
This time it felt natural. Instead of entering a turn at glacial speed, it went uphill rapidly and accelerated at the right time. The car didn’t attract stares from other drivers the way it did two years ago, possibly because residents are used to seeing them on the road.
Still, handing a completely driverless car with my life required a change of mind. It was sometimes unsettling to see the foot pedal itself going up and down and the wheel itself turning left and right, although I follow the company closely and have seen the technology work on several occasions.
Removing that hurdle with the wider public could 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 foot pedals move themselves. I received dozens of direct messages, mostly “WTF” and “How was it?!”
I spoke to several Phoenix residents to learn their perspectives. Some were unaware that the service is also available to them through an app. Others said they knew about the Waymo One, but were reluctant to try it. Most accepted that autonomous cars would eventually be the norm.
Waymo is now 13 years old. It has taken so long for self-driving cars on city streets to be fluidly powered in part of a US market. While reaching so far is a mighty impressive technological achievement, ubiquity – if it ever comes – looks like it is still a long way off.
Watch: Alphabet’s Waymo closes $2.5 billion fundraising round