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
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.
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.
Lilla Gaffney, a Phoenix-area software product specialist, says she loves the alone time with only a robot at the helm.
Driverless cars, like this Waymo vehicle, may be the future for grocery delivery.