Reviews | What it’s like to ride in a Waymo self-driving car


(Video: Washington Post staff illustration)


One day this month, I finished shopping in Chandler, Arizona, a few towns from a hotel where I was attending a conference. I had a few free hours and wanted to grab tacos from a nearby place that was recommended to me. So I pulled out my phone, opened an app, and waved a ride.

Sounds like a rather boring story, I hear you say, and, you’re right, except for one thing: the car didn’t have a driver.

As of October 2020, Google spin-off Waymo has been operating a driverless commercial taxi service south of Phoenix. After writing about the possibilities of a self-driving future, I wanted to give it a try, so I headed over to Chandler and downloaded the Waymo One app. It wasn’t a demo staged for journalists, skimmed over by anxious engineers and peppy PR people; I have the exact same service as you, if you ever find yourself in Chandler and want to check it out in the future.

I warn you that if you do, you will find that the future seems almost disappointing and normal.

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Not at first, however. In the beginning, you experience fear tinged with a little fear. There’s an undeniable horror movie aspect to sitting in the back of a car and watching the steering wheel spin itself, and for a moment I thought, “God, what have I -I am doing?” But the car’s ultra-cautious driving style quickly overcame my reservations, as no Uber driver has ever steered a vehicle so conservatively.

My car waited patiently at the entrance to the parking lot for a clean break in traffic, rather than trying to weave its way into the flow. It slowed as other vehicles behaved erratically and merged with the polite delicacy of a Victorian aunt. It was all so soothing that I eventually got caught up in a text with a co-worker and absentmindedly started asking the driver how long it would be before we got to the restaurant.

Now, of course, most of the time I was aware of my strange situation. I looked over the empty front seat to try to determine if the accelerator pedal was moving on its own, like the steering wheel. (Not as far as I know.) I laughed as drivers in adjacent lanes did a double takeover of the missing driver. I looked at the screen which showed me what the car “sees” – lanes on the road, other cars, even pedestrians.

But when all of that was said and done, it was just a ride, and when people asked me how it was, all I could say, apologetically, was it was both super cool and oddly unexciting.

The most exciting moment happened when a truck driver in front of us decided he was in the wrong lane and sat there for quite a while before finally honking our horn to back up so he could do reverse and slip into the lane to our left. . Since the car was oblivious to social cues, the result was a dead end. Eventually the car screamed that it was calling a human specialist to fix the situation – just when the truck driver apparently decided he had enough room to run the merge without our help. After pausing to check that the road was now clear, the car drove silently.

Columnist Megan McArdle rides in a self-driving car in Chandler, Arizona. (Video: The Washington Post)

As the truck incident suggests, some wrinkles still need to be ironed out before the future becomes the present. On the one hand, there’s a reason Waymo One operates in Chandler, with its wide, straight roads, minimal foot traffic and 330 days of sunshine a year: it reduces the complexity of harsh weather and unpredictable humans. Humans, in particular, are a problem, because despite all their advantages (self-driving cars don’t get impatient or distracted, intoxicated or exhausted), a 10-year-old human child is probably better at guessing what others are likely to do. do when something unexpected happens. The 10-year-old would have understood, for example, that the truck wanted us to back up.

But with that disclaimer aside: we’re still talking about technology that could drive on the highway so perfectly that I was bored enough to let my phone distract me. I’m confident enough that we’ll slowly solve the remaining problems through a combination of machine learning and human ingenuity — well enough that eventually vehicles will become ubiquitous and jaded humans will forget how amazing they are.

As I drove around Chandler, I thought of all the problems a really good self-driving car could solve: the accidents it could prevent, the elderly or disabled people it could bring out of isolation. I also wondered what changes it might cause that I can not imagine – who in 1900 predicted how the automobile would eventually completely reshape our built environment.

But I was also reminded that Waymo’s technology wasn’t the only modern marvel I witnessed. A self-driving car is, after all, no more wondrous than the horseless carriage itself, or the thin aluminum tube that carried me into the sky for me to witness. If riding in the future turned out to be less exciting than expected, I guess it’s because we’re already living in the future… and subsisting on so many daily miracles that it’s hard to be truly amazed at everything. that.


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