We are living in the future.
As 2023 draws to a close, it’s mind-boggling to even think of writing the date “2024” on anything. The number just looks crazy. But, ready or not, it’s here. And with the new year comes advancement of the automotive industry: There are huge initiatives underway with focuses on emissions, safety, traffic control, and autonomy. Over the past year, I have firsthand experience with a self-driving “robotaxi” service that is operated by a company called Waymo. And it may be coming to a city near you.
Just like the day I got my driver license, I will forever remember another red-letter day:
The first time I rode in a completely autonomous vehicle was March 4, 2023, when a couple of friends and I were looking to travel from a busy part of downtown Phoenix toward our homes. When my brothers visited from Utah for the No Fly Zone event later in the year, I knew I had to introduce them to the experience as well. As someone who loves to drive – and to be in complete control – it feels odd to surrender that privilege to a machine. It’s even weirder is to watch the steering wheel turn on its own.
This coming January will mark 15 years since the earliest beginnings of Waymo. At the time, it was called the “Google Self-Driving Car Project.” The program grew in size and scope, eventually partnering with Stellantis in 2016 on a fleet of about 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Things evolved from there, and just like any technology-related industry, it’s been a fast pace ever since.
“Level 4” autonomy, as utilized here, refers to a scenario where nobody is behind the wheel and a vehicle is sharing the road with cars and pedestrians. Testing for the platform took place in Chandler, Arizona. Weather, of course, could throw an entirely new variable at these vehicles. Perhaps that is why the existing services areas are in predictable climates without severe storms or the potential for snow. Along those lines, up until just recently, Waymo has operated in only two cities: San Francisco and here in Phoenix. Los Angeles is now on the map as of just recently, and expansion to Austin is in the works.
How does it work?
Each Jaguar I-Pace (all-electric) sport-utility vehicle in the Waymo fleet is outfitted with enhanced vision systems, radar, lidar, and a myriad of cameras. The completed setup looks a little bit like a moon-crawler with all that apparatus, but every piece of it serves some type of purpose.
The Waymo smartphone application operates in the same fashion as other ride-sharing services. A rider creates an account, links it to a credit card, and adds some basic information. From there, a vehicle can be summoned (that makes it sound like witchcraft, but this isn’t too far off!) and the application will give an estimated wait time until a vehicle will arrive for pick-up. All of this functionality mirrors the way that Uber and Lyft operate, so the learning curve is not steep for most people to figure out.
Atop each vehicle is a digital display with the initials of the rider – after all, in congested urban areas, there could be multiple similar-looking robotaxis. The doors to the vehicle must be unlocked via the phone app by the individual who called the ride, and from there, the vehicle will recognize how many people get inside and it won’t depart until everyone is buckled up.
The vehicles are extremely thoughtful – welcoming you to the car, telling you when the ride is about to conclude, and reminding you to collect your belongings at the conclusion of the ride. “I feel like I’m on a ride at Disneyland,” my sister-in-law Kali remarked. The touch-screen interface allows a rider to start the ride, control the music, adjust the climate control, pull over, and call for help if needed.
How much does it cost?
I compared fares across Waymo versus traditional ride-sharing services, and pricing was similar. It cost about $15 to go roughly six miles from my house to a restaurant downtown (well worth the price, considering we saved time on finding parking – and paying for it – on a busy weekend evening).
What about all the unexpected encounters?
I have seen Waymo vehicles pull over for emergency personnel, slow down for gutters, yield for pedestrians, and make all sorts of other maneuvers. For anyone who is concerned about safety, or who even just wants to geek out on all the safety-related data they could possibly want, Waymo has an entire section of the website dedicated to reporting on this topic. I noticed the vehicle we rode in during the October ride had over 80,000 miles on it. How many of those were autonomous? I wonder.
What are the service area and routing basics?
The grid of supported service area in Phoenix has expanded rapidly in recent months. Waymo vehicles are programmed to stick to surface streets. Freeway driving will require a whole new set of security and navigation features that may still be in development. In addition to that, we noticed that the vehicle preferred making right turns, which made sense from a safety perspective.
Even as someone who enjoys the act of driving, I see the benefit in having a service like this. Sometimes you just want a peaceful ride, and a “robot” driver might be the best solution for not having to make small talk with an overly chatty chauffeur. Adding to that: There is nobody to tip. And perhaps most importantly, the travel experience is likely safer than riding with a human driver.
I’d like to hear it in the comment section: Is this a service you will use when it eventually comes to your community? Waymo says that there are 1.36 million deaths due to vehicle crashes each year. If this technology can help give mobility to people who otherwise don’t have access to it, and save a few lives along the way, I welcome it.