My ride in SF’s driverless Waymo was flawless. I’m not sold.

A few weeks ago, I panicked my friends and family with a 13-second video clip. When I sat in the back seat of her self-driving Waymo car and recorded it, I could see the car’s steering wheel moving on its own. All responses were urgent and unnerving. A former colleague and my best friend from childhood each rolled out the same expletive, while another wrote “that’s horrible” followed by “how do you know” in all caps. rice field.

When I moved into my neighborhood last summer, I got my first glimpse of all-white Jaguar I-PACE SUVs, each covered in spinning cameras and emitting a space-age hum, all over the outer sunset. They were everywhere, running through the thick August fog. More than once at a stop sign he saw two of his Waymo’s stacked on top of each other.

That’s because Waymo, the self-driving car subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, began offering San Francisco citizens rides in its self-driving cars last August through its Trusted Tester program. At the time, people could sign up to test drive cars in specific areas and provide feedback to Waymo, but human experts were also on board just in case. Waymo has received approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to bring fully self-driving vehicles to the public. These “passenger-only” vehicles, as Waymo calls them, will allow Trusted Testers to experience a fully self-driving service, which Waymo will offer in his downtown Phoenix starting May 2022. It’s what you have.

Kimberly Alters

A few days before I ride in mid-December, the company announced another expansion. We are now able to offer riders-only rides throughout San Francisco and in select areas of Daly City. At the time this article was published, any member of the public could download the Waymo One app, but to actually become a Trusted Tester and access self-driving cars in San Francisco, you would have to join a waiting list. I have.
I’ve been interested in Waymo for a year. Because every time he left his apartment, he saw one of his Jaguar cars. So when the company offered a ride on SFGATE last month, I was curious to see one of the robot cars that seemed to have taken over my tiny residential neighborhood.

At the scheduled time, we met Waymo communications manager Sandy Karp on the corner of Haight, and she ordered us a car. Almost 15 minutes later, a white SUV with a completely empty front seat came up to us on Haight Street, manipulating several barriers in front of the pickup spot before stopping a few yards away. navigated. Cars are trained to avoid double parking.
It was very surreal to see a driverless car parked in front of us. And it was even more unrealistic to voluntarily get into that car and trust that it would take me safely where I wanted to go.
Instead of a cordial greeting from a real human driver, a robotic voice reminded me to fasten my seatbelt and wished me a “happy holiday.” (Carp cheerfully said that the car also wished its passengers a ‘Happy Friday’, but unfortunately, we were riding on Tuesday. We were ready to roll.

Waymo start screen.

Kimberly Alters/SFGATE

We have to give Waymo its due here: The ride was remarkably comfortable. I especially wanted to spend some time on Haight Street. Haight Street has two bus lines, frequent double parking, and a large number of pedestrians. It’s a complex driving experience that self-driving cars struggle to handle.
I’m glad I was wrong. Our “driver” handled it with ease, maneuvering smoothly around the parked car and comfortably pausing at traffic lights. As we turned west on Frederick Street, we stumbled upon a classic moment of San Francisco car chaos. A delivery truck was double parked in the opposite lane with a car driving backwards from the driveway into the street. As we approached, the car pulled out of the driveway and moved between our his Waymo and the truck. Meanwhile, to our right, a woman was leaning against the open car door, threatening that she would step her foot into the street at any moment.
Overall, Waymo had to anticipate stopped trucks, cars retreating from driveways, pedestrians, and other traffic movements of oncoming traffic. It handled everything without abrupt acceleration or hard braking, and without the sigh of frustration that a human driver (or at least this human driver) would have generated.

Waymo driverless car screen while driving.
Waymo driverless car screen while driving.

Kimberly Alters/SFGATE

Karp also noted that you can use the in-car screens to sync your music, adjust the temperature, and connect to human support personnel via your Google account. , I was able to see an animation of my car moving through sci-fi in a 360 degree view. Pedestrians were shown as circular orbs, fellow cars as rectangles, and city buses as eclairs. When you stop at a traffic light, a small bubble will appear above your cartoon car to indicate whether the traffic light is green, yellow, or red.
It was all very impressive. Still, after the robot car sent me home, I was left with a simple question. why?
Much ink has been spilled on how the taxi industry’s “revolution” by tech companies has affected labor. About a decade ago, he said, when the popularity of Uber and Lyft exploded, it upended a workforce made up of immigrants and people of color who were able to make a comfortable living driving taxis. rice field. Taxi unions around the world have rebelled. New York City medallion holders went bankrupt, making the coveted certificates essentially worthless.There were also concerns about passenger safety and worker exploitation.
Still, advocates of ride-hailing apps can argue that at least those companies, well, put people to work and broke barriers to entry. I’ve talked to dozens of drivers. They appreciate the flexibility the app offers and use it to supplement other income or work while attending school full-time.
Waymo promises just the opposite. Eliminate these accessible jobs and the traditional jobs that replace them. If there’s one addition to the labor market, it’s Waymo, which replaces blue-collar jobs with more jobs in an industry that tends to hire the same kind of people over and over again.

Kimberly Alters

The service is certainly attractive, as it consists only of electric vehicles that are in good condition and in good condition. There are also impressive accessibility features. Not only does the app provide tactile and auditory feedback to help you find your car, it also offers multilingual support, which is important in a multicultural place like San Francisco. — I had a robot drive me home!
Still, when I got back west, I was wondering… does anyone need this?
I get the impression that Waymo still gets it too. A few days after the ride, I spoke with Chris Ludwick, his Waymo ride-hailing product manager, and asked how Waymo plans to acquire customers from other apps. (and phone) already.
“I think our big focus right now is trying to grow our own service and focus on riders,” Ludwig told me. , he said, surveying people who ride Waymo multiple times a week to see why they choose Waymo over other apps. In many cases, the selling factor is the “in-vehicle experience… quiet, comfortable, able to play the music you want, close your eyes, and basically have complete freedom to do whatever you want.” increase.”
In other words, power users, at least among those with early access to robot cabs, are choosing Waymo because it takes the human out of the equation. In some cases, it’s understandable — Karp said she can sleep in peace knowing there are no strangers in the car with her in the backseat of the Waymo — but it’s not to me. Sounds like quite a dystopia. We worry about how smartphones have broken society and how social skills are being hampered by months of isolation caused by the pandemic. Do you want to exclude fellow humans from the very basic act of commuting?

Rating system screen after the ride.
Rating system screen after the ride.

Kimberly Alters/SFGATE

When I get back in the car and tell Karp about Waymo’s Outer Sunset blitz, she laughs and says that, in my neighborhood, I’ve been able to test Waymo car navigation in both thick fog and the glare of the sun reflecting off the Pacific Ocean. said. The fleet worked admirably. curl dark gray For a real sandstorm.
Good to know. If you hail a cab in a sandstorm, you can’t help but want another person there to share their experience.

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