Inside The City Where Waymo Tests Self-Driving Vehicles

Inside The City Where Waymo Tests Self-Driving Vehicles

November 1, 2019 100 By Jose Scott


In a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, there’s
a fleet of 600 minivans shuttling people from place to place. Ordering one feels almost exactly like
calling an Uber, except for one thing: the vans are
driving themselves. It does feel like from when I first got
in that it is just a normal car. Their vehicles are all
over our roads. I don’t think you could stand at a
street corner or drive a couple of miles without seeing a Waymo vehicle. I know that some of this technology is
scary for many of our citizens, but I think if you see other times in
our economic arc that this has really opened up new worlds for
people and new opportunities. This is my thirty third year in policing,
and when I started in policing we had vehicles, obviously, but there were
there were no computers, no cell phones. Pagers weren’t even
in existence yet. So to see this technology in relatively
a short 30 year span is just absolutely fascinating. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense hosted a 142
mile driverless car obstacle course competition. The farthest any of the entrants got
was a little over seven miles. And off we go. Good try, guys. The next year, the DOD tried again,
this time five vehicles completed the course, but a team from
Stanford did it the fastest. That Stanford team was led by
a computer scientist named Sebastian Thrun. So I didn’t anticipate this to become
a race for speed. It was one of the most thrilling races ever. In 2007, Google hired Thrun
and he created Google X. Two years later, Google X
launched a self-driving car project. In 2016, that project spun off as
its own company, called Waymo, under Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Here’s an example of the
Waymo Chrysler Pacifica minivan. There’s nobody driving. There’s nobody behind the wheel. The company says it’s tested its vehicles
in over 25 cities in six states. But the most miles seem to
have been driven around Phoenix, Arizona. From the police department’s point of view,
our mission is to keep our city safe. So we recognize this technology
as something that could really impact our roadways because the
overwhelming majority of collisions are preventable. You get in the car and you have
a seat and it has a start button. And it’s pretty trippy when you can see
the fact that the car is driving itself. It’s amazing to see how well the
brain processes information, as a driver, to see the car do
the same exact thing. It’s great to be a part of
history, for my kids to experience. My daughter actually liked it
a lot, didn’t she? Right now Waymo is doing two main
things in the Phoenix area: Around a thousand members of the community have
access to its rideshare beta program, Waymo One. Users can summon one
of Waymo’s 600 vehicles 24/7 and ride anywhere within a
limited local region. And these users are actually paying for
the rides, it’s not just a free demo. It also has a partnership with
Lyft and makes ten of its vehicles available to the general
public via Lyft’s app. I probably use Waymo maybe
percent of the time. The biggest limiting factor is that it
only goes in a certain defined area, mostly in Chandler and Tempe and
maybe a little bit of Mesa. If it went all the way downtown, I
would probably take it a whole lot more. The reason Waymo is limited to a
small region is because its cars are autonomous, but only
in specific locations. Everywhere it can drive has been
carefully mapped and analyzed so that even before sensing anything new, the vehicle
already has a good sense of where it is. The Society of Automotive Engineers came
up with a set of standards defining the levels of autonomy a vehicle
could be, ranging from zero to five. And right now, Waymo’s vehicles are
at a four: capable of full autonomy, but only sometimes. Tesla refers to its
driver-assist systems as Autopilot. Nobody in the industry
thinks that’s the case. Waymo and General Motors Cruise Automation
are very close to having what they refer to as level 5
cars, most of the time. So right now it’s standard for Waymo
vehicles to have safety drivers behind the wheel at all times, ready to take
over if something were to go wrong. And beyond that, there’s a team of
support staff on call to help riders. The vehicles are constantly maintained
by a team of people. They’re cleaned by a team of people. While the driving itself is done mostly
by a computer, the system is still dependent on human labor. A lot of the business promise and
also the hope for these machines, these autonomous vehicles, is that they eliminate
labor and they eliminate the need for human beings to drive and
to be stuck in jobs like delivering pizzas or picking up the elderly or
the blind from their homes and taking them to services, wherever
it needs to be. When we think through that a little
more carefully, though, some of the chinks in that idea show up. For example, think of something
like Meals on Wheels. The vehicle shows up. It opens the door. There’s the meal. Maybe they can get out to the
curb to get it, maybe not. Even if they could, though, when that human
driver shows up with a Meal on Wheels, they actually come
to the door. Maybe they sit for a little bit. So it’s this human interaction that’s still
very much a part of these transportation functions. I think there’s still a ways to go
before they’re ready for prime time on the roadways. But we want to be helpful
in the testing of it. And then we want to make certain that,
whether it’s at the state level or the federal level, that all of
those regulations and rules are being properly followed. Developing vehicles that adhere to
strict safety protocols, including speed limits, has occasionally been a point
of contention for other human drivers on the road. There’s been some experience where
because our Waymo vehicles actually follow the rules and the law, that some
people who tend be in a rush, get bothered by that. So there’s a transition
that’s going to happen. But with rideshare companies like Lyft
and Uber struggling to be profitable, for them, leaning into
self-driving cars could make sense. As we saw from the Lyft and Uber IPOs,
there does not appear to be a path to profitability for ride hailing
services with human drivers. Even buses where, you know, operating
the vehicle is very expensive, the vehicle itself, the major portion of
that expense is the driver. The future of autonomous vehicles is more
likely to be in the form of ridesharing fleets that you can borrow when
you need, but no actual car ownership. So I think they see an opportunity
in cars that will be able to transport things, transport people, but not
so much around car ownership. And it’s still a little bit unclear as
to where they see the biggest money coming from, but at least
that’s where it’s evolved to. In March 2018, a woman named Elaine
Herzberg was killed by an Uber self-driving car just 13
miles from Waymo’s office. But it didn’t slow Waymo down. It was business as usual in Chandler. The next day, just as many
vehicles were on the road. It was an unfortunate
incident for another company. But again, Waymo has had an
extremely conservative business model and safety protocols that they had
really weathered that storm well. We were very saddened, of course,
by what happened in Arizona. Our hearts go out to the family
and all those impacted by the crash. At Waymo, our focus
has always been safety. In our city, there have been no
collisions where the Waymo has been at fault. So you can take that any way
you want as an indicator, but it’s such a small sample size. Certainly we anticipate the more these
vehicles are out there functioning at the level that they’re expected to
function at, if it takes away that human element, it potentially could have
a very positive impact on the roadways. Some people have asked, you
know, is it actually safe? You know, when you are inside, do you
get nervous or, you know, do you think anything is going to go wrong? And I’d say, well, you know, no,
there’s always a driver, you know, at least while they’re still getting the
technology, you know, hammered out. Waymo is way ahead of everybody
else in terms of the technology. They have these disengagement
reports in California. They disengage a lot less, a
lot fewer times, than anybody else. You know, I think the robot drivers
are probably actually better than human drivers. Arriving shortly at your destination. Please keep your seatbelts fastened until
we reach your destination and remember to take all
your belongings with you. Proponents of autonomous vehicles make
compelling claims about the potential benefits of
self-driving cars. 94% of all crashes are
due to human error. 42 hours are wasted sitting in traffic
per person per year in the US. That’s an entire working
week every year. And millions more people aren’t able
to drive because they’re elderly or living with a disability. And self-driving cars have the potential to
change all of that for all of us. I think these cars and automobiles
and trucks provide a real opportunity for the state. There’s a lot that can be done
for disabled people, for blind people, for elderly people. So many of the deaths that happen on
our roads are a result of human error and I believe these autonomous
vehicles can provide higher public safety and that really
is the objective. But it’s just not clear these
things would actually happen with more self-driving cars on the road. One of the things I often hear from
people is when an autonomous vehicle is better than the fiftieth percentile driver
on the road, we have an absolute responsibility to let
them onto the road. Others, like Elon Musk, have said
it’s almost irresponsible not to have these vehicles out there because they are
safer and will be safer than human drivers. That’s not been proven. It presents a problem, which is people
dying on the road or crashing and so forth, and saying, well,
therefore, you need this solution. But of course, there are
a lot of solutions. And one of the solutions we see
right now are things like autonomous braking, lane keeping assist, all
of these driver-assist systems which take a good driver
and make them better. And so even if we could say that
an autonomous vehicle was better than a human driver, it doesn’t mean that an
autonomous vehicle is better than a human driver plus all the advanced
driver assist systems we have. And if the goal is safety above
all else, there are other less complicated things that could be done. For example, since speeding is known to be
one of the top causes of car accidents, members of the
European Parliament recently provisionally agreed to require all vehicles sold
in Europe to include mandatory speed limiters. A lot of the promises about
autonomous vehicles are around congestion and particularly safety They are kind of a silver bullet,
Silicon Valley, a tech-bro solution to the problem of road deaths. There’s a much less exciting solution
to road deaths, particularly in urban areas, and it’s
called Vision Zero. And the premise
is pretty straightforward. It says, let’s start with safety
and then let’s add mobility. The current idea around driving, around
cars, is let’s get as much mobility as we can and then
let’s start to make things safer. Whether or not autonomous vehicles are safer
than human drivers is in a lot of ways beside the point. They’re more lucrative than
selling cars to people. They’re more lucrative than selling
rides driven by human beings. So while there are other,
potentially better solutions, updating infrastructure and making policy changes is
never going to be as interesting to most people as
cars that can drive themselves. With the new technology, there’s going to
be a time period where you have to, you know, give it a
try and work out the bugs. Like if there’s a computer program, I
don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody code something and hit run and
it works perfectly the first time. You have to give us
some real world experience. And so, you know that not everything
is going to work perfectly right off the bat. I used to say a year ago that I
was sitting in a diner and looking out the door at 6 a.m. and I saw in the span
of an hour 12 Waymo vehicles. That was trumped about six weeks ago when
I saw about 30 Waymo vehicles at intersections. And I don’t know if it
was a parade or whatever, but it was, they’re just all
over our streets. And it’s a good relationship.