Jun 21, 2023 - Technology

A day in a Waymo driverless car

illustration of an orange moving car with no driver in front of cacti, wireframes and neon pink circles

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

Before last week, I'd never taken a Waymo robotaxi, despite growing up in the East Valley suburb of Phoenix where the company began testing self-driving cars more than six years ago.

  • I figured it was time to face my fears and hop in beside the wheel.

I spent a whole day testing Waymo's capabilities. I asked its cars to drop me off on a one-way downtown street, pick me up at the airport, go to the eastern edge of its boundaries, and navigate construction projects.

  • Within about five minutes, my nerves dissipated. I was enthralled by the ghostly sight of a steering wheel turning on its own, and impressed as the car maneuvered around obstacles.

The big picture: Rides were typically $3-$5 less than a comparable Uber trip β€” and there was no driver to tip.

  • In the morning, I never waited more than seven minutes for a ride. But when I requested a vehicle from downtown Mesa around 5 p.m., I had to wait 25 minutes.
  • The airport drop-off and pickup were a breeze. It took me 12 minutes to get from the car to Terminal 4 using the Sky Train.
Jessica and a Waymo driverless car.
Jessica and a Waymo driverless car.

Yes, but: Waymo doesn't use freeways (yet), which turned what should have been one 30-minute ride into a 55-minute haul.

  • The vehicle is trained to find a clear, safe place to pull over β€” in one instance, about a five-minute walk from where I was trying to go in downtown Phoenix.
  • And the expanded service boundaries are still limiting. Waymo covers only about half of downtown Mesa, which made for a less-than-fun quarter-mile walk in 97-degree heat.

πŸ€” 1 bizarre thing: My first ride from Chandler to downtown Phoenix took a wildly ineffective, zigzagging route through several industrial parks and neighborhoods.

  • I figured the cars were programmed to avoid busy streets, but those I took later in the day had no problem with the likes of Jefferson Street in Phoenix and Mill Avenue in Tempe.

The bottom line: Waymo isn't quite convenient enough to replace Uber yet β€” but it's easy to see how it could get there soon.

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