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Inside the life of Waymo's driverless test family

Inside the life of Waymo's driverless test family
A Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with Waymo's self-driving technology being tested at Waymo's facility in Atwater, Calif. (Julia Wang / Associated Press)

For the past year, Kyla Jackson has been one of the only teenagers in the world who gets a ride to high school from a robot.

When she’s ready to start her day, Kyla summons a self-driving car using the Waymo app on her phone. Five minutes later a Chrysler Pacifica run by the autonomous vehicle arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., stops at her home in Chandler, Ariz. She slides open the door, fastens her seat belt, and hits a blue button above her head to set the car in motion. It’s a minivan covered in goofy-looking sensors, but it’s the coolest ride at her school.

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The Jackson family, along with some 400 neighbors in their Phoenix suburb, are volunteers in an ongoing test of Waymo’s autonomous ride-hailing business, which is expected to launch for paying passengers in the area by the end of the year. The Jacksons, made available for this article by Waymo, have largely ditched their own cars and now use self-driving vehicles to go almost everywhere within the 100-square-mile operating area: track practice, grocery shopping, movies, the train station.

“People were like, ‘I don't know how you get in that. I couldn't trust a machine like that.’ It's so opposite to how I've come to think about it,” Samantha Jackson, Kyla’s mom, says of friends’ reaction to her family’s trust in driverless cars. “I can't think of a time that we've ever been honked at.”

Waymo’s Early Rider program in the Phoenix area is the furthest along among the company's 25 test cities. The Google offshoot has logged more than 8 million miles in fully autonomous mode and is now starting to test cars in Phoenix with no backup safety driver behind the wheel, something the Jacksons have experienced just once. If the public launch is successful, Waymo would be the first autonomous ride-hailing business.

“We’re just getting started,” says Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik. Alphabet’s X lab in Mountain View, Calif., is a semi-secret facility where delivery drones land on the rooftop and engineers in the garage below tinker with Waymo’s next vehicle, an autonomous Jaguar I-Pace.

Waymo’s checklist

Krafcik’s goal is to build what he calls “the driver,” an integrated suite of hardware and software that makes self-driving possible, and then to put the technology to work across four areas of transportation: ride-hailing services, trucking, personal vehicles and public transportation. The strategy leans heavily on partnerships, especially for vehicles.

“Car companies make cars, and that’s what they should do,” Krafcik says. “Self-driving companies should make drivers.”

Waymo has made a lot of moves. It reached deals to buy as many as 62,000 plug-in hybrid Pacifica minivans and 20,000 fully-electric I-Pace SUVs to build out its fleet over the next few years. It’s getting ready to launch the first commercial ride-hailing program in Phoenix and is waiting for a decision from California regulators on its application to begin testing without safety drivers in its hometown. It announced talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to develop a self-driving personal car.

On Tuesday, Waymo announced a partnership with Valley Metro, the agency in charge of public transportation in Phoenix, to begin shuttling people to and from public transportation. The program will start with Valley Metro employees and expand over time. The pact may later extend to Phoenix’s RideChoice program, which negotiates deals with taxi companies and subsidizes rates. The idea is that, if done right, self-driving cars could increase access to buses and trains in sprawling cities such as Phoenix.

That utopian vision has been undercut, though, by the emerging impact of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft on mass transit. A new report by Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former traffic-planning official in New York, found that 60% of app-based rides drew people away from otherwise using public transportation, biking or walking. For every mile of personal driving replaced by a ride-hailing app, customers added 2.8 miles of driving.

If self-driving cars make ride-hailing cheaper and more convenient, the research suggests, it could take a wrecking ball to public transportation. Strangely, the head of Phoenix’s public transportation agency agrees with that assessment.

“It will absolutely happen,” says Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s CEO. “But I’m not scared, I’m excited. There will be a reduction in bus use, in subway use in some areas, but expanded use in others. This is real. We’ve got to be a part of it.”

Some local bus routes are inefficient, Smith says, carrying just a few passengers in a vehicle built for 40. The partnership with Waymo could instead provide cheap connections to Phoenix’s high-capacity corridors of express buses and light rail. An autonomous car could drop you at one station, and another could arrive just in time to pick you up on the other side of the city. The problem with impact studies that have been conducted so far, Smith says, is that the data available today captures only the negative effects of ride hailing — and not the benefits that could come from integrating self-driving cars combined with streamlined public transit.

Telling passengers, ‘I’ve got this’

The experience of riding in a Waymo is surprisingly mundane. The robotaxi drives like a very careful human.

Screens built into the back of the front-seat headrests give passengers a sleek, video game-like view of what the car sees, with nearby vehicles represented as smooth pods jockeying along a dark blue virtual roadway. Every five seconds or so, a spray of white pinpoints flashes across the screen, briefly illuminating the roadway in striking detail: pedestrians on the sidewalk, shrubbery, road signs dotting the landscape. It’s Waymo’s way of telling the passenger: I’ve got this.

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One of the tricks Waymo has had to learn is how to indicate “intent” to other drivers by how the car moves. While making a left turn in a large multilane intersection, the car signals and creeps forward before accelerating into the turn. Waymo drives conservatively, to be sure, but the robots aren’t cowards. Gone are the days where two self-driving cars facing each other in a parking lot might freeze up from an overabundance of politeness: You go first. No, please, you go first.

There are still times when the car gets flustered — Kyla says that the rush of students in the parking lot of her high school can trigger Waymo paralysis — but for the most part it’s a reliable, if boring, chauffeur. “Kids walk and it halts,” she says. “It’s so polite. It's like, ‘Oh sorry.’ It’s not rude enough.”

While Waymo’s trials have proven the technology is feasible, it's only done so in Arizona's Goldilocks-like conditions of sunny weather and wide streets, says Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “The question is not just one of cost, it's one of scale,” he says. “Even Waymo, with Alphabet's deep pockets, cannot do this across the country.”

Samantha Jackson, who works as a senior director of operations for Downtown Phoenix, a booster organization for the area, grew up in a Michigan family that worked for General Motors Co. Her father was an early tech adopter, boasting the first personal computer of anyone they knew. Now, she says, her dad is “that senior citizen driving 55 in a 70-mph zone and she wants him to shift into self-driving cars. “I can't wait until my dad can get in this thing. I’m so excited for that moment.”

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The Waymo app updates every month or so, Samantha says, and the performance of the autonomous cars is constantly improving. Once, early on, her car stopped behind a construction container and didn't know what to do, forcing the backup driver to take over. On her first trip to the mall, she recalls the car taking “the most asinine route” and then driving all around the parking lot. Since then, she says, Waymo has designated drop-offs on the map for major points of interest.

What to charge?

Waymo is widely seen as the current leader in self-driving technology. California requires detailed reporting from every company testing cars here, and the results show Waymo far ahead of its competitors in testing on public roads in the state. The company is poised to step first into a market that could top more than $1.5 trillion a year by 2030, according to UBS analyst Eric Sheridan. But eye-opening revenue projections and the potential for widespread acceptance will hinge, in part, on pricing.

All rides are free for volunteers in the Phoenix test, but the Waymo app recently started to show hypothetical prices. A ride to Kyla’s nearby school shows up as $5, for example, while a longer 11.3-mile trip lists a cost of $19.15. That rate of roughly $1.70 per mile is comparable to Uber or Lyft in Phoenix but less than the roughly $2.50-per-mile rate charged by local taxi companies.

Without human drivers to pay, however, the price of a Waymo could go lower — much lower. Tasha Keeney, an analyst at ARK Invest, says that Waymo could choose to offer an autonomous ride-hailing service today at around 70 cents a mile. Over time, she says, robotaxis should get even cheaper — down to 35 cents a mile by 2020, especially if Waymo’s technology proves sturdy enough to need few human safety monitors overseeing the autonomous vehicles remotely.

Kyla Jackson is holding out hope that her parents will subsidize her rides. Even if she keeps up her pace of using the Waymo car to go to school and work at a burger chain and parties with her friends, the Jacksons all agree that Waymo is safer than teenage driving — as well as cheaper than owning a car and paying for insurance.

The question, then, is whether Kyla will get her driver’s license at all. She’s in no rush, and her peers seem open to an alternative: “A lot of my friends are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had a Waymo.’”

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