Mile by mile: The self-driving cars of tomorrow are already here

It’s unusually windy as I sit on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Fillmore Street. A woman in a blue nylon sweatsuit is the only other witness to the unmanned white vehicle whipping around the corner. Emblazoned with my initials – “AB” – on a screen mounted on the roof, the car calls out “Hello Abigail” as I open the door and enter my autonomous vehicle.

Inside it is clean, almost sterile. It’s like I’m the only person who’s ever been in this car, and there’s a certain intimacy that comes with that.

But the excitement doesn’t last as long as the looks from passers-by do. I decide to go to a coffee shop I’ve never been to 20 minutes east of me. I leave at 3pm on a Thursday, not realizing that the autonomous vehicle would have to cross three different busy school zones.

Within the first two minutes, I’m face to face with a group of boys, each no older than 14. They spot the Waymo, and then they see me sitting inside it. They wave and shout as they move away from the curb and toward the car, trying to catch a glimpse of the vacant driver’s seat.

This type of reaction continues; I spend the almost half hour trip being stared at. Anyone watching Waymo always turns to catch a glimpse of its companion and cargo: me. Waymo and I developed a unique connection. If we were going to be a spectacle, we should at least experience it together.

At one stoplight, a man in a chartreuse Kia Soul has to be honked at to get him to look away from Waymo. He never sees me. He does a double take, rolls down the window and adjusts his glasses. He squints a little and turns his attention to the road again.

Waymo knows the area—the side streets, the inner workings of old neighborhoods, the stop sign 300 meters ahead—but it soon becomes clear that the area doesn’t. Or maybe the site just doesn’t quite trust it yet.

Finally, I sit back and take in the side of Phoenix I hadn’t met yet. I see old homes with front porches decorated with rocking chairs and mismatched flower pots. Sun-bleached toys scattered across overgrown lawns.

I get to see the little things – all the things I wouldn’t have seen if I was driving.

I can’t figure out how to play music on the way to the coffee shop, so I just sit in silence the whole way there. It was uncomfortable at first. I try to hum to myself, but it was even more difficult, so I just sit. I settle into the sounds of the car and my environment. It’s rare that I can do that, when I can just…be.

At one point we pass another Waymo and I almost wave. It feels like walking past that one friend you only talk to in the one class you share—a welcome, but fleeting, surprise.

See also  $4.25 million goes to 10 affordable housing projects in Arizona, including 5 in the Valley

After arriving at the coffee shop, spilling my drink on a clean counter, getting a fresh green tea made by a barista with a blonde mohawk and finally making a quick escape, I order another Waymo to take me back.

On the way home, I sit in the front seat and figure out how to control the music – Mitski was the artist I chose – and I just watch the surroundings pass me by again. That’s all I can do for that time window. It is nice.

Buckle up

In November 2022, Waymo One, an app that offers ride-hailing services via autonomous vehicles, was introduced to metro Phoenix alongside parades of Waymo’s sleek white Jaguars and Chryslers, changing the rideshare model as we know it. At the time, the service sparked discussions among students about the safety, legitimacy and availability of self-driving vehicles in and around ASU’s downtown locations in Phoenix and Tempe.

READ MORE: Waymo launches autonomous vehicle service in downtown Phoenix

Waymo One is an app—owned by Alphabet, Inc., the parent company of Google—similar to Uber and Lyft. Where it differs from the two rideshare powerhouses is by allowing customers to order a fully autonomous vehicle to drive them around. Currently, it is only available within the boundaries of certain metro areas in Phoenix, namely downtown Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler and parts of Tempe.

Chris Bonelli, a Product Communications Manager at Waymo, broke down what a rider can expect from a Waymo ride, emphasizing the importance of a seamless user experience.

Each Waymo has two screens that show the rider exactly what the vehicle is seeing. Moving squares on the screen represent nearby cars and traffic cones, and show upcoming hazards or obstacles in the way.

“With 29 cameras, lots of radar and, in addition, lidar or laser-based sensor input, the vehicle has a 360-degree view of all its surroundings at all times,” said Bonelli. The purpose of the displays is to “show you as the driver that the vehicle is seeing, addressing and reacting to the environment correctly.”

Katelynne Newman, a freshman majoring in communications and organizational management, hates Waymos. “They drive, like, incredibly weird,” Newman said, adding that she has observed Waymos in Tempe directly impacting local traffic in a negative way.

“As soon as you see a Waymo, everybody just starts getting over, and then traffic starts to build up in one lane because f— Waymo is putting everybody down,” Newman said, adding that her experience as a commuter had to traveling to and from school has often become more stressful with Waymos driving around.

See also  IPS students walk out in protest against the "Don't Say Gay" bill, HB 1608

I understand where she is coming from. My Waymo consistently drove exactly the speed limit, and Arizona drivers aren’t exactly known for following traffic laws closely or being as careful as the Waymo was programmed to be. It seems that Waymos habitually adapts to the environment as it should be, not the environment as it is, Newman said.

This raises a genuine security concern for Newman. Sure, the vehicle has the software and hardware that make it objectively safe. But even Bonelli noted that “humans are only inherently fallible.”

The autonomous vehicles are “never drunk, drowsy or distracted,” Bonelli added. The root of Newman’s concerns, however, isn’t that Waymos will run red lights or cut people off, it’s that they’re disrupting an already busy and already difficult-to-navigate city by being—dare I say—too robotic in their behavior.

Despite the enhanced safety that comes with not having a fallible driver, autonomous vehicles are not immune to being inside and causing accidents. Between July 2021 and January 2023, there have been 29 accidents involving autonomous vehicles in Arizona.

Autonomous is equally available

With no one commanding the vehicle, staples of traditional rideshare apps like awkward small talk and the added cost of tipping are long forgotten with Waymos.

Thomas Taylor, a junior studying urban and metropolitan studies, often uses Waymos to run errands around Phoenix.

Like many out-of-state students, Taylor does not have a car on campus. With Waymo, he said, the ride-hailing service has given him a newfound sense of independence.

“I can easily get somewhere and I don’t have to ask a friend and I don’t have to feel like I’m relying on anybody else,” Taylor said. He’s been able to go to the grocery store, travel to the airport, and shop for clothes with Waymos without feeling self-conscious about not owning a car.

“The car culture in Phoenix is ​​very strong,” Taylor said, describing how he has felt anxious when he casually runs errands with Uber or Lyft. The awkward feeling of getting into an Uber with your arms full of groceries is something that goes away entirely with Waymos, Taylor said.

READ MORE: Pay to park: ASU has a parking problem, and it’s costing students thousands

Although downtown Phoenix has reasonable public transportation, Taylor feels that it is not easily accessible for all students. Instead of having to travel to Tempe on the light rail to shop at Trader Joe’s, he can use a Waymo to get to a store closer to downtown Phoenix, saving more time than he would have spent using a typical ride-hailing service.

See also  Pat K. Van Valer - Daily Journal

Waymos also provides an aspect of privacy that sets them apart from Uber and Lyft. Bonelli described an experience where he used an Uber and had to take a confidential business call at the same time. For him, the two did not mix.

The worry of a stranger overhearing a personal conversation, knowing your home address, or seeing you at your most sloppy at 2 a.m. on a Friday doesn’t matter when it comes to Waymos.

The experience is meant to be the same every time. The same cars. The same screens.

Both Taylor and Bonelli recognized the importance of Waymo’s product consistency.

“When I hail an Uber, I’m going to be paired with either a 2022 Lexus or a 2003 Prius and everything in between,” Bonelli said.

The future of campus transportation

Aviral Shrivastava, a professor at the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, described Waymos as “fancy new toys” that will become more normalized as they become more common.

“I think if this technology – and I think it’s not a question of if, I mean when – this technology becomes widespread and successful, I think the cost of these trips will come down dramatically and it (will) be a real game changer and have a real impact on society,” Shrivastava said.

If autonomous vehicles become more prevalent in areas around colleges, they will take up more space in society at large, he said. If they become more accessible and affordable, people can move away from owning their own cars.

Despite the growing popularity of Waymos, the rise of autonomous ride-hailing is still very much in its infancy, Shrivastava said. There is “no good and easy answer” to predict when and how autonomous vehicles will become a normal part of everyday life, he added.

“I think a lot of people imagine that it will take decades for autonomous cars to become very widespread,” Shrivastava said. – I look forward to that time.

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Alexis Moulton, Sam Ellefson and Greta Forslund.

This story is part of The Automation Issue published on March 15, 2023. View the full publication here.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow along @abbygisela on Twitter.

Like State Press Magazine on Facebook, follow @statepressmag on Twitter and Instagram and read our releases on Issuu.

Continue to support student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *