Testers praise self-driv­ing car as slow, steady

While stud­ies say many are re­luc­tant to give up the wheel, Waymo’s Phoenix project cre­ates fans

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Marco della Cava

SAN FRAN­CISCO – Later this year, Al­pha­bet’s self-driv­ing car com­pany, Waymo, plans a his­toric first: of­fer­ing a self-driv­ing, ride­hail­ing fleet to the pub­lic in the city of Phoenix.

Af­ter nearly a decade of build­ing and test­ing its au­ton­o­mous cars – which just hit the 10 mil­lion-mile mile­stone – the for­mer Google Car Project is about to hit start on what even­tu­ally will be self-driv­ing car ser­vices in a few of the 25 U.S. in which it cur­rently tests.

So what’s it like to hand over your daily driv­ing chores to a ro­bot?

At least two Ari­zona res­i­dents – par­tic­i­pants in a year-old, 400-rider Waymo test pro­gram in the sprawl­ing southwestern city – say run­ning er­rands with an au­ton­o­mous car is a bit like driv­ing with grandma, for bet­ter and for worse.

“There’s a jig­gly-ness about the ride, it’s slow around peo­ple or trees and can be slow to turn in an in­ter­sec­tion, but it also feels very safe,” says Bar­bara Adams, 68, of Tempe, who, along with her hus­band, Jim, reg­u­larly uses the Waymo self-driv­ing Chrysler Paci­fica Hy­brids to hit the lo­cal mall.

Lilla Gaffney, 29, of Mesa, de­scribes her­self as an “anx­ious per­son.” So the cau­tious na­ture of Waymo’s cars suits her just fine.

As does its often non-ex­is­tent driver – while most Paci­fi­cas ar­rive with a Waymo safety driver mon­i­tor­ing the wheel, some­times no hu­mans are at the con­trols as the com­pany ex­per­i­ments with truly driver- less tech.

Once the Waymo Paci­fica pulls up, then it’s just a mat­ter of hop­ping in­side, clos­ing the slid­ing mini-van door and hit­ting the big blue “Start Ride” but­ton. An­other but­ton is there in case of emer­gency and sum­mons Waymo per­son­nel with a call.

“I’m soli­tary, so not hav­ing to talk to a (taxi or ride ser­vice) driver is a plus,” says Gaffney. “But mostly it just makes me feel safe. One time, the Waymo (ve­hi­cle) paused be­fore turn­ing, and I won­dered why. Then a car ran the red light and crashed into the me­dian. It saw that car way be­fore I did.”

These largely glow­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als, which come from test riders Waymo con­nected with USA TO­DAY, cer­tainly don’t tell the whole pic­ture. In Au­gust, tech site The In­for­ma­tion in­ter­viewed Phoenix res­i­dents,

some of whom de­scribed Waymo cars cut­ting across speed­ing lanes of traf­fic or stop­ping abruptly.

But the fact re­mains that af­ter mil­lions of miles of city driv­ing, an ad­di­tional 7 bil­lion miles of vir­tual test­ing and count­less more tests un­der­taken at a pri­vate faux-city fa­cil­ity in Cal­i­for­nia, Waymo ve­hi­cles have yet to cause a ma­jor ac­ci­dent. When fen­der-ben­ders do hap­pen, often it’s be­cause hu­man driv­ers bump into the ro­bot cars.

That safety record is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal in light of a fa­tal­ity in Phoenix last spring that re­sulted from an Uber self-driv­ing Volvo fail­ing to spot a pedes­trian cut­ting across its path. The car’s safety driver was dis­tracted by a cell­phone and re­acted too late.

That in­ci­dent caused Uber to pull out of its Ari­zona test­ing pro­gram and re­think its au­ton­o­mous car strat­egy.

Waymo is just one of dozens of com­pa­nies, rang­ing from au­tomak­ers to small tech start-ups, test­ing self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles. Hur­dles cer­tainly re­main, in­clud­ing deal­ing with snow and other in­clement weather and win­ning over con­sumers.

Af­ter the Uber ac­ci­dent and a series of Tesla crashes in­volv­ing that au­tomak­ers’ Au­topi­lot sys­tem, AAA re­ported that 73 per­cent of poll re­spon­dents said they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle, up from 63 per­cent in late 2017.

Af­ter the Uber crash, Waymo qui­etly con­tin­ued to test its fleet of Chryslers, which soon will be joined by tens of thou­sands of JaguarLandRover ve­hi­cles, and has stuck with plans to roll out the self-driv­ing ride-hail­ing pro­gram to all area res­i­dents in late 2018.

“Our test pro­gram in Phoenix has opened our eyes to so many real-world sce­nar­ios that we hadn’t thought about,” Waymo CEO John Kraf­cik, a for­mer Hyundai ex­ec­u­tive, tells USA TO­DAY. “So while that first 10 mil­lion miles has been to­tally about safety, now the next 10 mil­lion can also fo­cus on an im- proved rider ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Kraf­cik says many of its test riders use the cars a few times a week for ev­ery­thing from car pool com­mutes to rides to kids’ sport­ing events. And then there are the count­less trips to area malls.

“Nav­i­gat­ing park­ing lots can be re­ally chal­leng­ing for a self-driv­ing car,” says Kraf­cik, not­ing that the law­less na­ture of those spa­ces means the ve­hi­cle has to be ready for all man­ner of ve­hic­u­lar sur­prises.

The Waymo cars – which are sum­moned by an app sim­i­lar to those of­fered by Uber and Lyft, but at the mo­ment re­main free of charge for the test riders – are pro­grammed to drop pas­sen­gers off as close to mall en­trances as pos­si­ble.

But pick-ups at gro­cery stores, for ex­am­ple, are best ex­e­cuted near shop­ping car re­turn lo­ca­tions for max­i­mum ef­fi­ciency. “Our ser­vice has to be about com­fort and con­ve­nience as much as safety,” says Kraf­cik.

Not to men­tion price, con­sid­er­ing that once the au­ton­o­mous shut­tles are no longer free con­sumers could opt to drive their cars or hail a taxi or an Uber or Lyft.

Early rider Adams, a re­tired marine bi­ol­o­gist, says the cost of a fu­ture Waymo ride will shape her de­ci­sion to use the ser­vice. “If all of a sud­den it’s $10 to go to the gro­cery store, I’ll have to think twice about that,” she says.

WAYMO

Jim and Bar­bara Adams have been us­ing Waymo’s self-driv­ing cars to run er­rands. Bar­bara Adams says she likes that she doesn’t have to pay at­ten­tion to the road dur­ing the trips.

WAYMO

Lilla Gaffney, a Phoenix-area soft­ware prod­uct spe­cial­ist, says she loves the alone time with only a ro­bot at the helm.

WAL­MART

Driver­less cars, like this Waymo ve­hi­cle, may be the fu­ture for gro­cery de­liv­ery.

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