The Waymo car parked outside the salon.
Autonomous driving company Waymo — formerly known as the Google self-driving car project — has launched a fleet of vehicles in Phoenix and San Francisco.
The company has been mapping Los Angeles and is launching operations there soon.
Dubbed Waymo One, the driverless cars are the world’s first autonomous ride-hailing service and work like e-hailing an Uber or Lyft car.
Waymo has billions of miles of simulation rides.
According to the company, the autonomous technology is extremely safe. In its first one million miles of driving, Waymo said it had no reported injuries and only two collisions that required a car to be towed.
18 other collisions were minor impact with no required police report.
Of all of the vehicle-to-vehicle incidents, the cause was due to “one or more road rule violations and/or dangerous behaviors on the part of the other vehicle’s operator,” per Waymo.
This information was published in February in a detailed report of the company’s collisions and safety data, which it is using the justify its approach to safe autonomous driving.
Source: Waymo, NBC News
Still, the perception of autonomous robotaxis may be concerning because there isn’t a driver to take the wheel if there is an emergency.
Waymo has roadside assistance available to help if the car breaks down or gets stuck.
But, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, human error “caused or contributed to” 93% of investigated accidents — so taking the human out of the scenario might actually be the answer, according to Waymo.
Waymo has remote operators to instruct the cars, but they cannot directly control if there is a severe problem.
Source: Waymo, NHTSA
“The Waymo Driver is our autonomous driving technology that never gets drunk, tired, or distracted,” the company said, emphasizing its robocars will reduce the risk of accidents, injuries, and death on US roadways.
Given its safety record and confidence, I decided to try Waymo’s autonomous car on a recent trip to Phoenix. For transparency, I am one of those people who has a fear of being in accidents, so I am more comfortable in the driver’s seat.
I get anxious sitting in the passenger seat no matter the case, so my fiancé has gotten used to being a passenger.
So, I was definitely very nervous trying out a driverless car with no feeling of control, but I was surprisingly calm by the end of it. Here’s what it was like.
The pamphlets in the seatback pocket.
Waymo One is in Phoenix, but only in certain outlined areas, including in the city’s downtown and in the East Valley.
The outlined areas in blue are the Waymo service areas.
My hotel was outside of the service area, so I drove 10 minutes to Mesa and picked up a car at a local salon. I was already realizing that Waymo One is really only realistic if you start and end within one of the two zones.
Mesa is in the East Valley service area.
Using the mobile app, I set my pickup as SalonCentric and the destination as Marlborough Mesa Park about 2.5 miles away. I was able to select roundtrip and be dropped back off at my starting point.
The app made it easy to change my pickup or drop off locations before the car arrived.
According to the app, the entire journey would cover about five miles and last 20 minutes for $11 total, but I was shocked to see a 39-minute wait for a car.
A screenshot of the Waymo app.
I don’t see myself waiting that long for a ride if I was in a time crunch. When I checked Uber, the same roundtrip ride would also cost $11 and a car was available within eight minutes — though that price didn’t include tip, which isn’t required on Waymo since there’s nobody to tip.
A screenshot of the Uber app with the same route.
A Waymo spokesperson told Insider the “longer-than-usual wait time” is due to its fleet transition in the East Valley. Currently, there are fewer Chrysler Pacifica vans in the area because they are being replaced with the Jaguar I-PACE EV.
Mark Matousek / Business Insider
There are more Jaguar I-PACEs in Downtown Phoenix, so wait times would have likely been shorter there, the spokesperson said.
After patiently waiting near 40 minutes, the autonomous vehicle finally pulled right up to where I was standing — I didn’t have to go searching for it.
The app showed me exactly where the car was as it made its way to the pickup spot.
The car was a white Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan with sensors and cameras all over it, giving it a 360° view of its surroundings.
Waymo has also had modified Toyota Priuses, Lexus SUVs, a custom-built prototype vehicle (nicknamed “Firefly”), and Jaguar I-PACEs in its autonomous fleet.
On the front of the car were my initials “TR” for Taylor Rains. I set this in the app to identify the van, but I could also change the letters or color of the display.
I could change the color to purple, white, or gold, according to the app.
I hopped into the back seat of the car and it felt strange not being greeted by a human driver. But, there was music and an automated voice that welcomed me on my ride.
I had driver-free car, but sometimes there will be a “safety driver” onboard to monitor the robotaxi.
Before setting off, I explored the car a bit to get my bearings. There were four seats total, including one with a child seat.
According to Waymo, up to three passengers can ride at a time.
There were also buttons that allowed me to control the temperature…
Riding in an autonomous Waymo car.
…as well as pull the car over. I could also lock or unlock the vehicle or call for assistance.
Having the option to stop the car when needed gave me a sense of relief.
I thought the car was clean and well-maintained with plush seats, USB ports, cupholders, and plenty of space.
Riding in an autonomous Waymo car.
I could even play music using the Google Assistant App to connect the car to my phone.
There were instructions on the screen that helped me connect.
Once I was ready to go, I tapped “start ride” on the screen in front of my seat. I could also initiate the drive from the app or a button on the ceiling.
It was strange seeing the wheel move with no input from a human.
The car slowly started navigating its way out of the parking lot and onto the main road. The car knew exactly which lane to use to go straight through the light, successfully avoiding the turn-only lane.
I’ve been cut off by drivers in the wrong lane at a red light several times, but the Waymo car knew the correct lane to be in.
Stopped at the light, I realized the screen displayed my planned route. As we started moving forward, the screen indicated the movement of the cars around us, including which ones turned and how far away the one behind us was.
My Waymo minivan was white and the other vehicles were blue.
This gave me a great sense of comfort and I started feeling less nervous. I could see all of the safety measures in place and hoped its awareness could avoid reckless drivers.
The outside of the Waymo car.
The car continued on its route to the local park, easily switching lanes when necessary. It only drove on back roads and main streets — no freeways or interstates.
The route was automatically created when I requested the ride.
Granted, more accidents per mile happen on city streets than on freeways, but the higher speeds can increase the severity of the accident, according to Forbes.
Waymo does not drive on freeways or at high speeds, per Forbes.
Fortunately, I didn’t experience any threats or evasive maneuvers on my ride. The car didn’t accelerate too quickly, maintained the legal speed, and fully stopped at all red lights and stop signs.
The empty driver’s seat in the Waymo car.
Overall, the forward movements and turns were smooth, but I noticed the car could be a tad hard on the brakes at times — nothing too severe though.
The screen saying I’ve arrived at the park.
Once I arrived at Marlborough Mesa Park, the voice announced the ride was complete and to exit the vehicle. But, since I requested a roundtrip ride, the voice said the car would remain nearby when I was ready to return.
The car was parked next to the sidewalk and out of the way.
I hopped out of the car, walked around for a few minutes, and then jumped back in. Waymo didn’t lie — the car waited right where I left it.
According to Waymo, there could be a change of cars during a stop, but it shouldn’t impact the wait or ride time.
I hit “start ride” again and the same welcome message came over the speakers and the car started driving. After a successful ride to the park, the second leg was less stressful because I trusted the technology.
The map in the app showing me the status of my ride.
For example, on a three-lane road, the Waymo vehicle waited for the center lane to be clear before it pulled into the right lane — negating any possible threat.
The screen displaying the cars around me definitely helped settle my nerves.
The ride back to the salon took about 10 minutes and the drop-off was easy. Overall, I would use Waymo again because it felt like I was able to see and understand everything the car was doing.
I could rate my ride after arriving back at the salon.
I appreciate that the company is transparent about its safety data and that there are systems and indicators in the car to give passengers peace of mind.
The car stopped at a stop sign.
Plus, I didn’t have to awkwardly talk to a human driver like with Uber or Lyft. I could play my own music or simply enjoy the peace and quiet.
The USB in the Waymo car.