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Taking a driverless Waymo in Phoenix over the holidays was fun but unsettling

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Jennifer Elias | CNBC

Like many travelers over the holidays, I got stuck last week in my effort to get back home.

I live in San Francisco and was in Phoenix with my family. We picked that as our New Year’s meeting spot so we could attend the college football Fiesta Bowl, pitting Notre Dame against my brother’s former squad, Oklahoma State.

My flight home was scheduled for Monday morning. But because of severe winter storms in parts of the country and airline staffing shortages from the fast-spreading Covid omicron variant, it was delayed three times.

Rather than bum around the airport, I decided to do some work and have some fun in the process.

Phoenix is the only market where Waymo is currently operating its self-driving ride-hailing service, Waymo One. As the Alphabet beat reporter, I thought — what better time to give it a shot? No employees, no public relations staff and no camera crew. Just me, my phone and a minivan with no driver.

Last time I rode in a Waymo was 2019, a year after Waymo One started offering trips to select riders. I visited the company’s Phoenix office and took a ride in a self-driving car, which at the time could only operate with a safety driver behind the wheel.

Since then, Waymo has raised $5.5 billion in funding from investors including Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowitz and T. Rowe Price. It also launched Waymo Via, a local delivery service, and announced that it’s testing self-driving vehicles in San Francisco and New York.

The company says its cars have driven more than 20 billion miles in simulation and over 20 million miles on public roads.

Getting a car

Before I could experience a Waymo One firsthand, I had to first find out where I could pick one up.

Waymo only reaches a portion of the sprawling Phoenix area. I knew this because earlier in my stay I’d tried to order a car, but the app told me I was outside its service region. According to its website, Waymo One operates in suburbs, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.

The Waymo One app shows a map of the company’s limited service area in the Phoenix region for the user to see before ordering a vehicle.
Waymo One app screenshot by Jennifer Elias

I already had an account from my prior unsuccessful attempt. To register, I had to connect to my Google user account by entering my Gmail address and password. Next, I added my credit card information.

Then I went to open the map to summon a vehicle. When I attempted this a few days earlier, a message popped up, saying “Autonomous specialists are temporarily accompanying rides, which means someone will be in the driver’s seat.” I had to click “OK” before proceeding. That was a bit of a surprise because in October 2020, then-CEO John Krafcik, who left the company in April, said in a blog post that, “Waymo is opening its fully driverless service to the general public in Phoenix.”

Julianne McGoldrick, a Waymo spokesperson, told CNBC in an email that humans sit behind the wheel “during inclement weather.” However, it hadn’t rained around the time that I received the notification.

The rest of the setup was straightforward, similar to signing up for Lyft or Uber.

On Monday, the day of my actual Waymo trip, I took a 15-minute Lyft ride from my hotel near the airport to the Raintree Ranch Center in Chandler, so I could finally be in range to order a car. At the shopping center, I grabbed a cup of coffee at Starbucks and opened the Waymo One app.

For my desired location, I picked a Trader Joe’s store several miles away, towards the northern edge of the service area. The app estimated a car would be available in 10 minutes, and kept me posted on its progress by the minute. It showed a small photo of the car, a Chrysler minivan, that was on its way.

Waymo One app displays a time frame to expect the ride.
Waymo One app screenshot by Jennifer Elias

The ride

I couldn’t find the car at first.

The map showed me where it was, but since I wasn’t familiar with the area, that wasn’t much help. The app gave me the option of tapping the “honk” button. As soon as I did, I heard the honk loud and clear and began walking toward the sound, which was a few hundred feet away from where I was standing.

I approached the van and was again surprised. It was illegally parked in a fire lane, which was apparent by the brightly painted red curb. It was also partially blocking a lane used by cars entering and exiting the shopping center. One car had to go around the Waymo to get into the parking lot.

The van had its hazard lights on, the Waymo logo on the side and a dashboard displaying my initials. I clicked the door handle, jumped in and strapped on the seatbelt. A woman’s voice welcomed me. The passenger seat in front of me had a screen that displayed a map and the car on the road.

A partition read, “Please stay in the back. Don’t touch the steering wheel.” That led me to wonder if Waymo had experienced an attempted hijacking before, a potential risk I hadn’t considered until that moment. The cupholders held hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. In the seat pocket in front of me was an N95 mask that was the same aqua color of the Waymo logo.

I wanted to put on some music but the screen required me to download the Google Assistant app, so I gave up. A Bluetooth feature or USB plug-in would’ve been more convenient.

The Waymo vehicle was a completely autonomous vehicle with no driver in the front seat.
Jennifer Elias

The five-mile ride lasted 14 minutes over highways and some neighborhood streets. The cost was $10.77, or a little less than $1 a minute.

For the most part, the ride was smooth, allowing me to comfortably avoid spilling my coffee. However, there was one rough moment toward the end.

Just as the car neared Trader Joe’s, it came to an abrupt stop, slamming the brake for an apparent pedestrian. It nearly gave me whiplash and made me particularly grateful for the working seatbelt. The jolt was surprising, as the car was going no more than seven miles an hour in a parking lot.

McGoldrick, the Waymo spokesperson, wrote that “it’s definitely not the experience we strive for” and added, “Our team is looking into this event, and we will use it to improve.”

After gasping — and letting out an audible “Jesus!” (see video below) — I settled back in until the car let me off in front of the Trader Joe’s. The drop-off spot was in yet another fire lane, next to a red-painted curb.

“We’ve arrived,” the recorded voice told me. “Please check your surroundings before exiting the vehicle and remember to close the doors after you exit.”

McGoldrick didn’t provide a comment on why the car kept parking in clearly marked fire zones, and said the team is looking into it.

A slightly different feel

Despite spending a week in the Phoenix area, I saw very few Waymos. It was a stark contrast to my visit in 2019 and to current day San Francisco, where I’ll often see several test cars on the roads in a day. The company says it has 300 to 400 vehicles in the Phoenix area, including Chrysler Pacifica vans and some Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs.

On the whole, the experience was much more relaxing than my prior ride in 2019 with a safety driver. At that time, the car felt overly cautious. It went slower than the speed of traffic and waited for what felt like an eternity before making an unprotected turn.

This time, it felt natural. Instead of inching into a turn at a glacial pace, it swiftly moved up and accelerated at the right moment. The car didn’t seem to attract stares from other drivers the way it did in two years ago, likely because residents are used to seeing them on the road.

Still, entrusting a completely driverless car with my life required a mind shift. Watching the foot pedals move themselves up and down and the wheel turn itself to the left and right was unnerving at times, even though I follow the company closely and have seen the technology work on several occasions.

Clearing that hurdle with the broader public may be one of Waymo’s biggest challenges. On Instagram, I posted a 10-second video of the ride, which allowed viewers to see the steering wheel and foot pedals move themselves. I got dozens of direct messages that mostly consisted of “WTF” and “How was it?!”

I also spoke to several Phoenix residents to get their perspectives. Some were unaware the service was even available to them through an app. Others said they knew about Waymo One, but were reluctant to try it. Most acknowledged that autonomous cars would eventually be the norm.

Waymo is now 13 years old. It’s taken this long to get self-driving cars operating fluidly on city streets in part of one U.S. market. While even getting that far is a mighty impressive technological feat, ubiquity — if it ever comes — feels like it’s still a long way off.

WATCH: Alphabet’s Waymo completes $2.5 billion fundraising round

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