It’s been over two years since I took a virtual test drive inside a Waymo Robotaxi in San Francisco — and many of the same problems remain, now in IRL form.
Any denizen of the Bay Area is annoyingly familiar with fleets of autonomous vehicles crisscrossing our dilapidated roadways. Big players in the race toward the distant driverless future continue to throw millions of dollars (and press emails) toward vying to monopolize this tech sector that may not truly come to fruition for many decades.
Joining Cruise, Voyage, and others already operating in San Francisco, Waymo—a subsidy of Google, whose parent company is Alphabet Inc —announced the launch of a fleet of its autonomous taxis in San Francisco last year, with employee volunteers behind the wheel. (This was the first expansion beyond the company’s testing in the Phoenix area, where Waymo has been operating since 2018.)
In Arizona, members of the public were able to book and ride in these Robotaxis as early as 2021; this eventually happened in San Francisco later in 2022. Since then, Waymo and Cruise cars have flooded SF streets with traffic-causing automobiles, infuriating residents across the seven-by-seven
But before we all began throwing our fists at the sky whenever these cars would pass, I took Waymo up on an offer to do a virtual ride in one of their self-driving cars driving around the streets of Arizona before they debuted the service in San Francisco.
And I did so happily sat, hella caffeinated, and rather high while sat at my kitchen table in San Francisco’s Lower Nob Hill neighborhood.
Two years ago — a time when Covid-19 hadn’t yet entered our collective lexicons — Waymo put the event at 50 minutes on my calendar, but I saw that the test drive itself, which would take place around various parts of the Phoenix suburbs, was scheduled to last just 10 minutes. I brewed a cup of coffee the morning of my virtual test drive and braced myself for a lengthy PR presentation, popping a (mild) cannabis gummy, as well. My ability to feign contentment and pleasure over anything virtual these days has withered into a fine powder.
“Welcome, everyone. This is our opportunity for us all to digitally meet,” said the moderator, whose porcelain white front teeth made me question the benefits of sipping the rest of my coffee.
The well-groomed human behind the screen explained that we’d get a presentation by Ryan Powell, head of Waymo’s UX research and design, and Sam Kansara, senior product manager for rider experience. At this point, I welcomed the slight THC tingle tickling behind my forehead. I metaphorically braced for impact, acutely aware that shiny slide shows, bullet points, and colorful infographics were about to be hurled my way.
I learned that the company focused on offering an alternative to the perils of distracted driving—or at least is messaging it that way, which is still a point of focus some two years later. Of course, like all companies, Waymo really wants money. It’s true though that driving is one of the most dangerous things we can do, and the past decade has seen unrelenting increases in traffic-related deaths and pedestrian injuries caused by remaining inattentive at the wheel.
Why? We can’t stop checking our damn phones while going twice the speed of Usain Bolt inside a steel-and-aluminum cocoon padded with yet-to-be-inflated carnival balloons.
But there are major speed bumps: improving the technology and winning the public’s valid questions about driverless cars. Are they safe? Is someone spying on me? Can I high-key meditate or take a power nap while sitting inside one of them?
Humans can’t be trusted — not with the health of the planet, outer-space exploration, and certainly not behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. That’s why the company positions the Waymo Driver — a tongue-in-cheek marketing moniker for Waymo’s sweep of camera and lidar technologies splattered across the interior and exterior of its Chrysler Pacifica minivans —as the chauffeur of the future.
I then virtually sat inside the car via a mounted webcam. The car sheepishly pulled away from our launch point after “picking us up.” Again, without the help of able-bodied Homo sapiens. The wheel spun and the pedals pushed behind the empty driver’s seat until we navigated out of the parking lot and onto a crowded roadway.
What preceded was admittedly remarkable in its outright banality.
Our oversized Chrysler family hauler maneuvered without a hiccup. It took left- and right-hand turns, pausing to “look out for cars coming.” The car changed lanes at highway speeds without a fiery collision. I quickly realized that I’d for the sure trust this thing to get me from point A to point B while THC clouded my prefrontal cortex.
It eventually parked — better than I could’ve done sober.
Waymo has now tested over 30 million street miles in over 25 cities — including Miami, Los Angeles, and most notably Phoenix, where the company debuted the first-ever fully driverless service to the general public in the United States back in October — since the program began in early 2009.
As illuminating as this 10-minute foray into a driverless future was, this experience won’t be commonplace for some time. It will take decades. Self-driving technologies — even Tesla’s ever-evolving autopilot system and GM’s Super Cruise driver-assistance feature — exist in an optimistic bubble. The infrastructure simply isn’t in place yet to support these types of technologies mainstream, especially given how neglected and outdated our public roadways are in this country.
(Narrow roads can literally cause these self-driving cars to crowd, en masse A member of Cruise’s fleet of robot taxis, apparently with nobody aboard, rear-ended a San Francisco Muni bus last month — which caused the company to recall some 300 vehicles.)
Unprotected left turns, which are notoriously dangerous even when conducted by a human, still endure as an anxious risk when riding inside a Waymo Driver — or any self-driven car, for that matter. We haven’t even touched on government regulations and legislative hoops that need to be navigated to see this technology reach the masses.
Right now, the current autonomous driving movement remains a proxy for when Motorola released the first cellphone in 1973. There’s a long road ahead, but when it happens, there’s no denying its ability to shape-shift our everyday lives in the future.
Until then, keep your hands on the wheel. Put the phone down, no matter what car you’re in. And for the love of all things left sacred and pure in this hellscape, don’t practice transcendental meditation while piloting your Model 3.
Feature Image: Courtesy of Waymo