PHOENIX – “The machine is controlled by a ghost.”
That’s what my 5-year-old daughter said when I recently met her from the back seat of a Waymo autonomous car in the suburbs.
A similar reaction was from motorists and pedestrians passing by. They pointed, stared, and even gasped when they noticed that no one was in the driver’s seat.
It will take a lot of experience similar to mine to start the car-free era. Although the commercialization of autonomous vehicles has been much more complex than many thought just a few years ago, the benefits for racers and companies are real, based on my recent experience.
The difficult task of getting a driver out of a car can lead to safer roads, increase profits for companies and create a better overall experience for racers. But you need to deploy carefully and safely. Companies also need to demystify the experience by attracting more people to vehicles.
During my trip to Phoenix, the steering wheel in a modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan moved with every turn and lane change, as the car used a set of cameras, radars and sensors such as a leader to “see” the surroundings.
The car also reflected what he saw – such as other cars, buildings and pedestrians – on screens in the back of the car. The screens help riders know what the car is feeling, which can make it easier for them.
Waymo One self-driving cars reflect what they “see” (other cars, traffic lights, buildings, pedestrians, etc.) on screens in the back of cars.
Michael Wayland / CNBC
I was in several highly automated and self-driving cars, but they all included backup safety drivers behind the wheel. This is not the case for the Waymo car park in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
While some Waymo cars have safety drivers during tests and bad weather, the rest, such as the two on which I spent more than an hour, had no one but me.
For me, this experience was free. She stressed the real potential of autonomous vehicles, which some believe will become a multi-trillion industry.
Shortly after my first car via the Waymo One app (as in Uber or Lyft), I was at ease with my ghost driver. In fact, I even preferred it after four hours on the plane and riding with two people-drivers at the beginning of the day.
The fact that I was alone without a driver allowed me to calm down a bit. It allowed me to be productive without interrupting or worrying about being an annoying or inattentive passenger. I wrote FaceTime, tweeted, called and changed directions several times without feeling uncomfortable. I even wrote most of this article while in the second van.
The ability to do such things is something that companies have promised that unmanned vehicles will provide for years to come. This is in addition to increasing safety and saving huge amounts of capital by taking away drivers – the most expensive expense for such companies – from a car.
But in reality people are unpredictable, and the amount of skills needed to drive a car, whether at school or in a construction area, has been underestimated. It took much longer than expected to get to where we are today, and it’s not that far off. Many companies are conducting private trials, but large fleets of autonomous vehicles that have been promised by companies such as Uber, Lyft and General Motors are not yet close to implementation.
Waymo, a division of Alphabet, became the first company to offer such a fleet to the public in late 2020. Its service area is limited to about 50 square miles, but it shows the potential for these technologies. The company says it has made tens of thousands of trips since its public launch in October 2020.
Waymo is not alone in this. There are others, such as the supported Amazon Zoox, Cruise and Argo AI, that are testing and even working in limited areas across the country. However, they do not charge tariffs and work for the public good in such a large and significant way as Waymo. Cruise, a GM-owned subsidiary, is approaching that night in San Francisco.
Mostly smooth, but some problems
In all, the two Waymo cars I drove operated just as safely as many of the drivers I was with, including one I had to take to get to the car service area. They easily coped with reclining chairs, braking and acceleration. Once the novelty was over, I was at ease with how the vehicles coped in most situations.
But the rides were not perfect. Of course, people are not drivers either, but one of the promises of self-driving vehicles is to reduce, even eliminate accidents. So as safe as a human, drivers don’t cut it.
The Waymo One car passes through the neighborhood instead of going straight and turning left at a busier intersection as shown on the screen inside the vehicle.
Michael Wayland / CNBC
The route choices were also amazing. It seemed that cars sometimes preferred to drive on nearby streets instead of turning left or using middle turns (see image above). Waymo says vehicles can choose a different route to avoid traffic.
There were also cases of steady, almost sharp braking and steering movements. At one point the first car I was in also stopped in the middle of a crosswalk before deciding to leave with its reverse. (My colleague Jennifer Elias has experienced several similar attacks involving fire lanes.)
The removal of a vehicle is also different from a traditional taxi or travel service. You need to be precise about where the pickup will be for the car.
In the crowded Walmart parking lot, I ran after a car that was driving in and out of the lanes, trying to get to my side of the street. It was annoying, but about the same level of frustration I had when I tried to find my Uber driver at the airport.
Waymo cars were in line with the cost of delivery services. In total, I spent $ 49.20 on two trips that were 26.5 miles and took 1 hour 17 minutes. The cost per mile averaged $ 1.86 per mile.
This compares to my trips by autonomous taxis and those driven by humans, averaging $ 1.62 per mile, without tips, resulting in $ 1.88 per mile.
My Waymo trips included moving from one Walmart to another, then stopping for lunch before welcoming my second car to take me to the post office and then to Target near the northern border where vehicles can drive.
Self-driving car Waymo
As I wrote in one of the vehicles, I was struck by the opportunities for self-government, including for supplies and consumers. Even in limited operations such as Waymo, the promises of these technologies are real, but also real technological problems, regulatory barriers and the unpredictability of the human driver.
Waymo and others need to get more “examples in the seats” – an old saying of car dealers selling vehicles – to try autonomous vehicles. This is the only way people, including the younger generation, will believe that ghosts drive vehicles.
Correction: The cost per mile with the Waymo car averaged $ 1.86 per mile. In the previous version, the figures were incorrect.