I rode in a Waymo self-driving taxi with no driver and it was a smooth and safe ride, despite my initial fears

·10 min read
I rode in a Waymo self-driving taxi with no driver and it was a smooth and safe ride, despite my initial fears
The Waymo car in the parking lot of the salon.
The Waymo car parked outside the salon.Taylor Rains/Insider
  • Autonomous car operator Waymo offers ride-hailing services in Phoenix and San Francisco.

  • The robotaxis use sensors and cameras to safely navigate city streets with no input from a human driver.

  • I tried Waymo's self-driving Chrysler minivan service and the onboard safety monitor helped me feel secure.

Autonomous driving company Waymo — formerly known as the Google self-driving car project — has launched a fleet of vehicles in Phoenix and San Francisco.

Several white Waymo autonomous cars are seen together on the street
The company has been mapping Los Angeles and is launching operations there soon.REUTERS/Peter DaSilva

Source: Waymo

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 One App
Waymo has billions of miles of simulation rides.Waymo

Source: Waymo

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.

Waymo vision looking at roadways and pedestrians.
18 other collisions were minor impact with no required police report.Google

Source: Waymo

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.

Waymo Castle
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.Waymo

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 AAA
Waymo has roadside assistance available to help if the car breaks down or gets stuck.Waymo

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.

Two cars wrecked.
Waymo has remote operators to instruct the cars, but they cannot directly control if there is a severe problem.fabphoto/Gett

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.

Alphabet's Waymo car.
Getty Images

Source: Waymo

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.

The wheel of the author's driveless Waymo car.
I get anxious sitting in the passenger seat no matter the case, so my fiancé has gotten used to being a passenger.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 blu and white pamphlets in the seatback pocket.
The pamphlets in the seatback pocket.Taylor Rains/Insider

Waymo One is in Phoenix, but only in certain outlined areas, including in the city's downtown and in the East Valley.

Phoenix Waymo map.
The outlined areas in blue are the Waymo service areas.Waymo

Source: Waymo

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.

The white Waymo self-driving car.
Mesa is in the East Valley service area.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

A screenshot of the Waymo route in the app.
The app made it easy to change my pickup or drop off locations before the car arrived.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 route in the app showing the pick up is in 39 minutes.
A screenshot of the Waymo app.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 showing $10.91 as the price for the roundtrip.
A screenshot of the Uber app with the same route.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

jaguar i pace waymo
Jaguar I-PACE.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.

downtown phoenix
Downtown Phoenix.Dszc/Getty Images

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 Waymo car in the parking lot of the salon.
The app showed me exactly where the car was as it made its way to the pickup spot.Taylor Rains/Insider

The car was a white Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan with sensors and cameras all over it, giving it a 360° view of its surroundings.

The camera on top of the Waymo.
Waymo has also had modified Toyota Priuses, Lexus SUVs, a custom-built prototype vehicle (nicknamed "Firefly"), and Jaguar I-PACEs in its autonomous fleet.Taylor Rains/Insider

Source: Waymo

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.

"TR" on the display on the front windshield of the car.
I could change the color to purple, white, or gold, according to the app.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

Inside the Chrysler Waymo car.
I had driver-free car, but sometimes there will be a "safety driver" onboard to monitor the robotaxi.Taylor Rains/Insider

Before setting off, I explored the car a bit to get my bearings. There were four seats total, including one with a child seat.

The child seat in the last row of the Waymo car.
According to Waymo, up to three passengers can ride at a time.Taylor Rains/Insider

Source: Waymo

There were also buttons that allowed me to control the temperature…

The temperature control on the ceiling of the Waymo minivan.
Riding in an autonomous Waymo car.Taylor Rains/Insider

…as well as pull the car over. I could also lock or unlock the vehicle or call for assistance.

The buttons on the ceiling of the car, including black buttons for pull over, call assistance, and lock/unlock. A blue button starts the ride.
Having the option to stop the car when needed gave me a sense of relief.Taylor Rains/Insider

I thought the car was clean and well-maintained with plush seats, USB ports, cupholders, and plenty of space.

A view of the author's legroom, plus the USB port and cupholders.
Riding in an autonomous Waymo car.Taylor Rains/Insider

I could even play music using the Google Assistant App to connect the car to my phone.

The instructions to connect to the music.
There were instructions on the screen that helped me connect.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

The TV screen when I got into the car.
It was strange seeing the wheel move with no input from a human.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

The Waymo car at a red light.
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.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

The screen of the TV with blue cars.
My Waymo minivan was white and the other vehicles were blue.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 outside of the Waymo car.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

A view of the car at a red light.
The route was automatically created when I requested the ride.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

Traffic on I-75 in Atlanta.
Waymo does not drive on freeways or at high speeds, per Forbes.John Bazemore/AP

Source: 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.
The empty driver's seat in the Waymo car.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.
The screen saying I've arrived at the park.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 sign for Marlborough Mesa Park.
The car was parked next to the sidewalk and out of the way.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

The white Waymo car with the door open.
According to Waymo, there could be a change of cars during a stop, but it shouldn't impact the wait or ride time.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.
The map in the app showing me the status of my ride.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.

Driving past Starbucks and Fired Pie pizza.
The screen displaying the cars around me definitely helped settle my nerves.Taylor Rains/Insider

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 could rate my ride after arriving back at the salon.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.
The car stopped at a stop sign.Taylor Rains/Insider

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.
The USB in the Waymo car.Taylor Rains/Insider

Read the original article on Business Insider