Home Taxi company Waymo’s autonomous taxi struggles with left turns and puddles. But it’s...

Waymo’s autonomous taxi struggles with left turns and puddles. But it’s still winning some Arizona runners


By Matt McFarland, CNN Business

Waymo says its self-driving vans have made tens of thousands of trips since the company launched a public robotaxi service in Chandler, Ariz. A year ago.

CNN Business tested the Waymo service this month and spoke with eight Waymo customers who have used the service in the past year. They generally say they are very satisfied and prefer it to Uber, Lyft or owning a car. Their stories suggest there is a demand for robotaxis, but there are also significant hurdles for self-driving cars to become a mainstay in Americans’ lives anytime soon.

A cyclist can request a ride through the Waymo app and is asked to walk to a pickup point where the robotaxi can safely stop to pick it up. A Waymo Chrysler Pacifica van pulls up, displaying the drivers’ initials on the dashboard so it cannot be mistaken for another Waymo van.

“Hello”, a recording greets the runners as they enter. “This car is yours with no one up front.”

Vans always have a steering wheel that turns right and left as the car moves. A piece of plastic separates the front seats from the rear passengers, where the riders are supposed to stay. Runners press a button to begin their journey.

The journeys are generally longer and less direct than an Uber or Lyft journey. Taxis again do not use shared turn lanes, the company said. This sometimes forces them to take roundabout paths, like three right turns instead of one left turn.

Waymo says his vehicles have driven more than 20 million autonomous kilometers on public roads, but rainy days and puddles that linger on the roads afterwards can still Confusing the robotaxis enough that Waymo has to revert to an older, less impressive version of his robotaxis, with a human test pilot at the wheel.

The robotaxi service in Arizona is the culmination of 12 years of work since Google created its self-driving car project, which was later renamed Waymo, and made a separate subsidiary of Alphabet. The project started with great ambition and promises. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in 2012 that “you can count on one hand the number of years before ordinary people can go through this.”

The reality turned out to be different. After years of promises, Waymo offers robotaxi service in a 50 square mile stretch of Chandler, Ariz., And has yet to offer fully autonomous rides to the public elsewhere.

According to customers, there are advantages to having a computer driving the car compared to a human. Some like to ride alone rather than being driven by a stranger. Waymo’s prices can be cheaper, and the vehicles all drive with the same cautious personality, unlike ridehail riders, whose riding styles vary, the bikers say.

They say they have seen Waymo improve. Two runners reported having suffered sudden braking in Waymo taxis which seemed to be due to birds near the car, because no other vehicle was in the vicinity. But both pilots said the cars no longer brake sharply near birds. Waymo declined to comment on runners’ experiences with sudden braking around the birds. Waymo vans are also more confident when driving in crowded parking lots, according to bikers.

Corn a lot of work remains be done. Waymo remains focused on learning to improve its services, rather than profitability, according to Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana.

Waymo reached an agreement in 2018 with Fiat Chrysler to add up to 62,000 Pacifica hybrids to its fleet. Three years later, the fleet barely remains more than 700 vehicles. Former CEO John Krafcik, who led the deal, stepped down earlier this year.

Three straight lines make a left turn

Chandler resident John Mitkowski gave his car to his college-aged daughter after Waymo started offering rides. He thought he could use a combination of Waymo, Uber, and Lyft to get around. He uses Waymo to commute to work, run errands, and play golf, and calls it his preferred mode of transportation.

He made over 400 trips, more than anyone using the service, according to Waymo, who introduced CNN Business to Mitkowski.

He told CNN Business that he would only use Lyft or Uber today if Waymo didn’t have cars available. He organizes his schedule to be somewhat flexible in case a Waymo car is immediately available or unavailable for 15 minutes.

He works on his laptop while traveling, so he don’t mind if they’re slightly longer than in an Uber or Lyft. He said he was saving money with Waymo because there was no need to tip a robotaxi. Passengers told CNN Business that Waymo’s prices were generally comparable to Uber and Lyft.

Waymo drivers said they regularly draw the attention of people asking questions after drops or attempting to record rides while driving alongside Waymos.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll notice a car driving erratically. I’ll look up from my laptop and I’m like, “What is he doing?” “,” Mitkowski said. “My car might be trying to turn right, but the guy can’t see it because he’s trying to check me in and the lack of a driver in the car.”

Waymo’s vehicles avoid turning left on a busy street towards his neighborhood. Mitkowski said instead, they made a slight detour to an area across the busy street so they could cross the busy street at a traffic light.

“The object of their game seems to be the safest route,” Mitkowski said. “How not to put the driver, the car and the passenger in danger?

Waymo cyclist Sophia Lovasz told CNN Business that a recent trip that typically took 10 minutes by car took her 27 minutes with Waymo.

“If you had to be somewhere at a specific time, you might not want to call a Waymo,” Lovasz said.

Despite this, Lovasz said she was a very happy customer of Waymo and considered it a better second car for her family. She said she preferred it to Uber and Lyft and felt more independent there.

Lovasz made his first ride in April, requesting a ride to the Tempe Public Library, next to Chandler. Lovasz said Waymo told him to cross a seven-lane road and wait on a residential street across from the library to be picked up.

Lovasz crossed the street and entered the neighborhood, waiting on a narrow median at sunset, she said.

“It was a little awkward as a black woman standing right in the middle of a neighborhood where no one had seen me before. I was really uncomfortable, ”said Lovasz.

Waymo has since updated its service so that runners can be picked up directly from the library. A CNN Business reporter requested a ride from the library last week. After a 15 minute wait, a Waymo van is about to turn into a library.

Instead, he passed the library, turned around, passed again rather than turning left into the library, and then took a 15-minute roundabout route before finally entering the library.

A spokesperson for Waymo explained that the Waymo van appeared to be unable to change lanes to get into the correct lane to make its first turn in the library. After making a U-turn, the Waymo van did not turn left into the library because its vehicles do not use shared turn lanes. The spokesperson said such turns are tricky because local law requires readers to leave the lane a few hundred feet away, which can result in sharp turns.

Despite this, Chandler is well suited for self-driving cars in many ways, according to autonomous vehicle experts.

There is little bad weather, which is difficult for self-driving cars. Waymo has human test pilots behind the wheel on the expected rainy days, and often after. Light reflecting off puddles can make it difficult for vehicles to drive.

Another advantage of Chandler is the lack of pedestrians and cyclists. CNN Business encountered a single cyclist and no pedestrian, other than in a Whole Foods parking lot, on both trips,

Runners told CNN Business they have seen Waymo vehicles become more confident and assertive in parking lots, where vehicles have to deal with pedestrians and backing vehicles. But there are still problems that sometimes emerge.

Rajan Phadnis said that when it was dropped off at a Walmart recently, the vehicle stopped in a way that parked a driver in the parking lot. Phadnis said the driver of the vehicle yelled at him, making him uncomfortable because he could not control and move the Waymo vehicle.

He contacted Waymo’s support and said that after a few minutes the Waymo vehicle pulled away.

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