Ride in an autonomous vehicle in Arizona

TEMPE, Arizona – I fasten my seatbelt in the back seat, press the START RIDE button and my Waymo One Chrysler Pacifica pulls into traffic on Warner Road, the steering wheel turning right – then left – in the center lane before slowing down for a red light.

There is no one in the car except me.

Four years after a self-driving Uber car killed a cyclist here, fully self-driving Waymo ridesharing is on the streets ferrying drivers to their destinations. Like Uber or Lyft, they are open to the public. Unlike these familiar services, there is no driver on board.

I’ve done several three-day trips in the Southeast Phoenix service area. Rides were smooth, efficient, stress free and on time.

Since 2014, I’ve followed advances in Level 4 autonomous technology as a passenger — and as a driver behind the wheel of Level 2 semi-autonomous vehicles. My robotics rides include the original Google Lexus 450h; its cute marshmallow-shaped successor at Google headquarters; and Uber’s Volvo XC90 on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Semi-autonomous adventures include several rides aboard GM vehicles equipped with Super Cruise and Ford’s similar geo-fenced BlueCruise system. In the meantime, I’ve logged countless miles on Autopilot in my Tesla Model 3.

Since October 2020, Waymo One has served 50 square miles across the adjacent communities of Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler – the first Level 4 self-driving cars offered to the public, 24/7, rain or shine. weather, via a downloadable smartphone application.

(The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines automated vehicle systems as: Level 1, Driver Assistance, some driver assistance features may be included; Level 2, Partial Automation, combined automated functions such as steering and acceleration, with a driver maintaining control; Level 3, conditional automation, the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times; Level 4, high automation, the vehicle can perform all driving functions under certain conditions; level 5, full automation, the vehicle can perform all driving functions under all conditions.)

I wait 18 minutes at the Tempe Public Library, at a quiet urban intersection. The white Chrysler Pacifica – a large “W” printed on its doors – is recognizable from afar with its blue LIDAR “chewing gum machine” on the roof.

A passer-by exclaims in front of the sci-fi robot and reaches it before me – “Wow! A driverless car!” — taking pictures with his phone. In general, however, I’m struck by how the Waymos seem With 300 to 400 robots on the road, residents mostly pass them without looking back.

Like Detroit, Phoenix is ​​a sprawling metropolitan area where personal transportation is king. Like other ride-sharing companies, robotaxis sees an opportunity to serve people without vehicles, including the elderly or those with health conditions. The Epilepsy Foundation of Arizona and the Foundation for Senior Living are partners of Waymo. I focused my walks on daily necessities.

I’ve hailed robots at Freddy’s Custard and Steak (a popular local burger chain similar to Shake Shack), Walmart, Starbucks, and CVS Pharmacy. Pickup times were generally comparable to Lyft at 4-7 minutes. My ride from Tempe Library to Freddy’s is $10 – competitive with a $14 Lyft ride.

It’s impossible to confuse my ride with someone else’s Waymo. My initials – HP – are displayed in bright blue on the dashboard. The Waymo is plastered with instructions. As I approach, a sign on the front door invites me in (“Please sit in the back for access to controls and display”). I open the sliding door and a voice greets me (“Hello, Henry”).

As in a New York taxi, I am separated from the (empty) front seat by plexiglass. A touch screen hanging from the back of the seat confirms my destination. Once underway, the screen displays a car’s eye view of the driving environment: vehicles, pedestrians, buildings, stop lights. Every two seconds, the LIDAR scan shows even more detail with ghostly shapes of bushes, trees, streetlights, and more.

A camera watches me from above. The distant voice of a Waymo Rider Support agent chimes in. “Is your seat belt buckled?” she asks Waymo’s Chandler Service Center. “I can’t tell because it’s similar to the color of your shirt.”

I confirm that I am attached – and learn that I can press the HELP button (next to the camera) at any time to ask questions. I can also press PULL OVER if I want to stop the minivan.

A member of the Alphabet Inc. family with Google, Waymo uses the Pacifica Plug-in model (with a battery range of 32 miles before the gas engine starts), which is a nice upgrade from its Lexus 450h hybrid predecessor which featured a LIDAR “popcorn box” on top and only a second row of passenger seating. With their flexible three-row interiors, minivans have long been excellent ride-hailing vehicles.

Pacifica’s modern bullet-like form matches the sci-fi “Waymo Driver” suite of gear: one long-range, mid-range, and four short-range LIDARs. Additional hardware includes 19 cameras, six radars and several microphones. It’s a Best Buy customer’s dream ride.

One day, I bring my suitcase and my briefcase. But unlike the Lyft Nissan Quest van that delivered me to Tempe, I can’t access the Pacifica’s tailgate.

“Sorry, but you’ll have to put your bags on the seat next to you,” the Rider Support agent replies. It seems that all this LIDAR hardware requires a lot of hardware to boot up to run. Just like the old Lexus. Still, the van proves itself — it can swallow two passengers and their luggage. Or a lot of groceries.

With its supportive regulatory environment, high-tech workforce, and diverse population of seniors and students, Phoenix has ideal demographics to attract self-driving experiences. The Tempe service area is home to Intel’s extensive semiconductor manufacturing facilities, the Mesa Community College, and nearby dormitory communities. In addition to Waymo, GM’s Cruise is testing self-driving grocery deliveries here with Walmart.

Naturally, the gridded streets and mild weather help. Snow and cold (looking at you, Michigan) is hell on robotaxis. It didn’t rain while I was in Phoenix, but Waymo has confirmed that a technician will be on the call when storms loom. For the first time in eight years of robotaxis, I rode alone. In Pittsburgh in 2017, two Uber technicians occupied the front seats.

I was determined to put Waymo to the test and took rides during the morning and evening rush hours when the light was low.

Unlike human drivers, robotaxis prefer nighttime travel so that the cameras are not disturbed by glare from the sun. My Tesla’s autopilot struggles at dusk when the low sun can blind its cameras. Despite bright southwest sunshine, my Waymo rides never wavered.

My previous robotaxis were too conservative: always in the right lane, always in the lane of other cars. Not this time. While displaying impeccable manners (turn signals, respecting speed limits, easy turns), the Waymo’s priority is to get me to my destination on time.

Heading towards CVS, we change lanes to pass slower cars, then stay left on a six-lane road to save time. Crossing three lanes to get me to a side street near the pharmacy, the Chrysler slammed into the oncoming lanes as I would have – anticipating approaching cars, then widening the gap between them .

Waymo operates a huge service center in Chandler so its robotaxis can come and roost, refuel, get serviced. In addition to its high-tech equipment, Waymo technicians have mapped the service area for the cars to follow.

Since Waymo One opened to the public in October 2020, the company claims to have traveled 6 million miles with 47″ recorded contact events, almost all of which involved human error on the part of other drivers or road users involved. “.

When turning left into a six-lane road, the Waymo correctly merges into the leftmost lane. But a human driver to our right isn’t so accurate, swerving left past the Waymo as we merge. We slow down, giving way to the car.

Further on, a pedestrian crosses the six-lane on the left, then stops at the painted median strip. The Waymo sees it, slows down, then speeds up.

Tesla’s secret sauce is that it has tens of thousands of guinea pigs like me driving their cars every day – all of that data being fed back to headquarters to help with machine learning. Cool, but stressful. I need to know what the autopilot can’t see and override the system when it gets confused. Model 3, for example, usually slows down for every traffic light, whether green or red.

While waiting for Waymo, I follow the progress of the vehicle on the app. Unlike a Lyft driver, the robotaxi prefers quiet pickup locations on back roads or malls, requiring me to walk 2-3 minutes to meet it. Confident in the vehicle’s capabilities, I use my journeys to catch up on my emails and text messages.

Leaving a main thoroughfare, Waymo takes a shortcut through a suburban neighborhood to get me to Walmart. But the neighborhood includes multiple speed bumps. Hmmm. If I was in the Tesla, I would have to take over. But the Waymo sees them, slows down, then moves on to the next one.

Not bad for a self-driving car.

The autonomous vehicle fleet can be seen at Waymo’s operations center in Chandler, Arizona.

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