Inside look: Experiencing driverless ride in Valley Waymo vehicle

Posted at 12:42 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 13:46:07-04

CHANDLER, AZ — You may have seen them around, and you can now call for a Waymo self-driving ride, just as you would call for an Uber or Lyft -- but only if you live in Chandler.

The company has been test-driving their vehicles on Chandler roads since 2017, and in October 2020, the company launched an actual driverless rideshare in the East Valley.

Unlike the cars you may have seen on the road, this one truly has no human driver behind the wheel of the car.

Waymo officials tell ABC15, since they have been in Arizona, they have given rides to over 100,000 passengers in the East Valley community, and the reviews have been good.

ABC15 decided to take the driverless car out for a test run.

We met up with a Waymo communications consultant in a Chandler shopping center to call for our ride. After launching the app and entering our destination, the map showed the Waymo car would pick us up in a different location, which appeared to be a neighborhood.

So, we moved to the pickup location and tried calling for a Waymo driverless taxi once again. The app indicated a ride would arrive in about 19 minutes. We were able to track our vehicle on the app and watch as it got closer to us.

Waymo Communications Consultant Liz Renninger explained the Waymo vehicles would only use surface streets at this time, it avoided the freeway. The cost for a 10-minute ride to the Costco parking lot was about $6.82. Renninger said passengers did not need to add a tip as there was no human driver, and if you canceled the ride, you would not be charged a fee, unlike other rideshare apps.

Our ride arrived before the 19-minutes was up, as we watched it approach with excitement the car came toward us, then drove right by us, and parked itself in a cul-de-sac about a half block away from where we were standing. So, we walked over to the vehicle.

Waymo Product Manager Chris Ludwick said they were still working on perfecting a lot of the minor details involving the technology.

"Obviously there have been some hiccups, and little things we're trying to refine in the user experience, but overwhelmingly we feel really good about it," said Ludwick.

Back out on the street, as we walked up to our Waymo ride, we noticed our initials flashing on the front of the car. The automatic doors slid open, and we were told right now passengers can only ride in the back seat of the vehicle.

A plastic sheet separated us from the front of the vehicle. Reninger said it was one of their COVID-19 safety measures. On the sheet was a sticker that stated "Please stay in the back. Don't touch the steering wheel". So, we had to ask Waymo officials, what happens if someone does try to take control of the vehicle, can it be 'hijacked'?

"If anyone were to try to interfere with the controls in our car, we can detect that and we can actually ensure that the car comes to a safe stop. So, no one can actually cause the car to do anything that it wasn't planning to do already," said Ludwick. Cybersecurity was something the company took very seriously, he added.

As my driverless vehicle maneuvered its way out of the Costco parking lot, I noticed it was extremely cautious and very polite, allowing other drivers and pedestrians the right-of-way every time.

Company officials said COVID protocols remain once you're in the car, even if you are alone you are required to wear a mask. The vehicle's HVAC system automatically refreshes the cabin air on a regular basis. The company has added a feature that 'flushes' the cabin with outside air, completing 4.6 air cycles to achieve 99% reduction of concentration between rides.

Safety information contained within the app also warned passengers to wear their seatbelts at all times as "you may experience hard breaks".

ABC15 asked Waymo about their safety record:

"In the 16 million miles we've logged in Chandler and this area, we have had 47 crashes, and we believe that most of those were the responsibility of the other driver," said Ludwick.

He adds that the company conducted a study analyzing 72 fatal crashes in the city of Chandler in a 10 year period, and the study revealed a Waymo vehicle would have avoided every one of those crashes, including those involving bikes and pedestrians. You can read more about the study online HERE.

Despite the safety record, some in the community worried about the loss of human rideshare jobs, as companies like Waymo shifted toward driverless technology.

Tyler Denton, who is a Phoenix rideshare driver said he heard concerns from many of his fellow colleagues who loved the flexibility and extra income these jobs provided.

"It's a way to make a few extra hundred bucks a week, on their own schedule. There are a lot of single mothers out there that drive, you know, to help support their families," said Denton.

He also worried about the lack of human connection with 'robots' taking over jobs.

"I have formed so many connections with riders in my car over the years. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to. We share great stories, all that will be lost," added Denton.

Waymo officials said driverless technology would create a whole new industry in the Valley, thus creating higher-paying jobs in the long run.

Delivery driver Jonathan Ferrell said he believed some businesses would continue to hire humans to deliver their items, despite the technology. He also said it was the way of the future, so one had no choice but to embrace it.

"You can either get on board or get behind, you know," said Ferrell.

Right now, the driverless cars are only offering rides in about 50-square miles within the Chandler area. You can download the Waymo app to hail a ride. The company does have plans to expand in the near future, but nothing they are ready to announce just yet.