ARIZONA, USA — Picture this: A Chrysler Pacifica minivan pulls up to the Dobson Ranch Golf Course, slowly and with no one behind the wheel. The Waymo app chimes, signaling the car’s arrival.
It’s time to go for a ride -- with the car driving itself.
This minivan is one of hundreds of self-driving cars operated by Waymo, a Valley-based autonomous car company that has been working on the technology for a decade.
In October, Waymo opened its car service to the general public by way of an app called Waymo One.
After years of testing, the company is now operating its cars without safety drivers to correct the car’s programming.
The Ride Along
Waymo invited 12 News along for the first-ever press ride in a fully driverless car.
At first, the most startling thing about riding in a Waymo car is that the steering wheel moves itself. The car drives the speed limit and avoids cars as if it can see them, which it can through a combination of LIDAR and cameras.
The second startling thing is how easy it is to forget that no one is behind the wheel and to just enjoy the ride.
“Building that sense of every day is actually a critical part of the experience that we want to build as well,” said Sam Kansara, Waymo One project manager.
But the system isn’t perfect. Once a customer calls for a Waymo car, it may or may not be able to pick the rider up where they want. They may have to walk to meet it somewhere. Likewise, it may or may not drop riders off directly at their destination. It all depends on the algorithm that runs the car.
The route is entirely up to the car’s programming, and it is not always the fastest route.
On the day 12 News rode in a Waymo, it stayed mostly on residential streets and avoided busy intersections. The car got to the destination safely, but not by the most direct route.
“I still think that this is one of those technologies whereas people experience it, it'll be like their first iPod moment,” self-driving car expert and ASU professor Andrew Maynard said.
“Before they had an iPod, they couldn't work out what on earth this was about. Afterwards they couldn't work out how to go live without one.”
Arizona’s self-driving rules
Arizona has some fairly relaxed rules about self-driving cars, but the federal government said that a lack of rules is unsafe.
In 2018, an Uber self-driving car hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe. The safety driver wasn’t paying attention and the car did not stop.
The National Transportation Safety Board found problems in Uber’s technology, culture and, what they called, the state’s “insufficient oversight.”
Driverless Uber cars have since left Arizona, but there are countless other companies still testing the technology in the state.
Waymo has not reported any accidents caused by their self-driving cars so far.
And the company said that when one of its cars learns something, that knowledge filters to the other self-driving cars. They said those cars have driven 20 million miles on public roads and the equivalent of 100 years of simulated driving a day.
“Doesn't mean that they've been perfect here, I don't think anybody could be,” Maynard said. “But they're certainly being smart in terms of how they're ensuring the safety and the utility of the technology.”
As of now, the Waymo One service only works in parts of Tempe, Mesa and Chandler, though Waymo says it plans to expand coverage.
It also plans to expand to other cities and states, but could not give an estimate on when expansion might happen.