By Hope King
I took my first ride in a self-driving car a week ago. Our team traveled to Phoenix, Ariz., where Waymo has been operating the world's first commercial self-driving taxi service, Waymo One, since early December.
Waymo has not publicized the exact number of cars in its Waymo One fleet. However, the company has approximately 600 self-driving vehicles on the road across the country and says a majority operate in the Phoenix region. Waymo uses Chrysler Pacifica minivans and announced a year ago that it was ordering 62,000 more.
Our trip spanned 4.4 miles and took about 15 minutes. In the car with me was my videographer Doug, a Waymo spokeswoman, and one safety driver at the wheel.
The trip would normally cost $8.92, or $2.27 per mile. (For this demonstration, we hailed and controlled it from a Google Pixel phone supplied by Waymo.) By For comparison, an afternoon Uber trip I took from my hotel in Scottsdale to Mesa the day before cost $24.32 (excluding $3 tip) for 18.1 miles. That comes out to about $1.34 per mile. Riders we spoke to said Waymo fares were fairly priced, and appreciated not needing to tip.
My experience was very similar to using any number of ride-hailing apps. You open an app, request a ride, get in, and get out. The big exception, of course, is that the person behind the wheel never touched it, never controlled the car ー Waymo's autonomous system, outfitted on a hybrid Pacifica, did all the work.
Here's what I found surprising:
1. It was uneventful. Most reviewers of these rides have said the same thing, but it's important to note because it's SUPPOSED TO be uneventful, without incident, as a typical car ride should be.
2. There was a children's car seat. How many taxis do you know that come with a built-in car seat? The Chrysler Pacifica minivan design has three row seating, with passengers sitting only in the middle or back rows. The car seat is great for parents but for some riders we talked to, it limits the number of people who can take a ride.
3. Arizona is an amazing state...and perfect for testing. The streets are wide and flat. The weather is predictably pleasant and dry, which is important because LIDAR, which is critical to the autonomous driving system, can sometimes become confused in wet conditions.
4. Waymo One cars stand out on the road. Driving around, it was easy to spot other Waymo One cars with their large camera module on top and bulging radar devices on the sides. This has always been one of my questions/concerns: how will self-driving cars be easily spotted on roads, so other drivers know what they're dealing with? Well, you can't miss these things. (Plus, the Waymo logo is prominent on the sides and rear of the car.)
5. You're not supposed to talk to the safety driver. One rider we spoke with pointed this out. There's a person in the drivers' seat. He/she is not driving, the wheel is moving, and it's awkward to not talk to them. We said hello and goodbye and thank you to our safety driver, but it was strange to suppress the inclination to ask him questions.
6. The cars are very clean. Yes, of courseー this is a new program and service, but it did make me wonder how clean these cars will be in the future with more riders and no humans in them to monitor their state. These cars are also designed to be on the roads for as long as possible to offset their high costs, so how often will they be maintained?
7. The inside of the car is relatively normal. Aside from the screens on the back of the headrests, internal camera recording the cabin, and some conveniently located USB ports, the car is otherwise unremarkable and feels like sitting on an airplane.
8. I was excited, but I was also a little nervous, the entire time. Even with over 10 million miles of real-road autonomous driving logged, and a safety driver, I knew a new kind of technology was in control and I was thinking about that fact the entire time. The tiny tenseness was born partly out of curiosity and partly out of fear. The feelings were not dissimilar to my first experience using lane assist on my test drive with Tesla's Model S, X and 3. With the Tesla test-drive, my comfort level grew the more I used the feature because I grew to understand how the computer was making decisions. This phenomenon is probably why Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are a bit eager to create human brain-tech interfaces.
9. I would definitely ride in a robot taxi again but I'm not jumping at that feeling. This is all about forming habits. I'm used to crazy taxi drivers in New York (for better or worse) and having to deal with the randomness of Uber drivers. I expect that if I have more interactions with these vehicles, and if those experiences are consistently better than the ones I currently have, I may feel more eager for adoption.
10. What will we do with more time on our hands? The whole point of taking a taxi versus subway, or driving, is added productivity. I can conduct calls, do work. I justify the added expense because of the payoff. Sitting in that Waymo One, I thought ーwhat if everyone who needed to drive was freed of the duty and given their time back to do what they wanted. What would we come up with next?