In a patch of Arizona, everyone knows Waymo. But few use it.

The Alphabet subsidiary rolled out a fully driverless robotaxi service in late 2020, but it has yet to catch on among locals
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Francis Scialabba

· 9 min read

Chandler, Arizona, is a city of just over 250,000 that’s located southeast of Phoenix. Like most of Arizona, it's hot, dry, and lined with cacti and palm trees.

But unlike most of Arizona—or virtually anywhere else in the world—Chandler residents share the road with fully driverless robotaxis, courtesy of Waymo. As Stacy, a Chandler resident, told us, “Waymos are like rabbits in my neighborhood.”

Since October 2020, the Alphabet subsidiary has been running its driverless ride-hail service, Waymo One, in a 50-square-mile service area that encompasses parts of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. Anyone with a smartphone, credit card, and GPS coordinates in the service area can hail a completely driverless ride of their own.

In December 2018, Waymo opened Waymo One (with safety drivers) to the general public, expanding beyond an early rider program available to pre-approved, NDA-bound Phoenix residents. The company’s current testing zone, for driverless and safety operator-supervised vehicles, stretches across roughly 100 square miles.

And although residents living in or near the service area may be used to seeing Waymo’s glossy-white, sensor-laden Chrysler Pacificas roving around, the chances they’ve ridden in one are much, much lower.

Waymo One’s service area, geographically speaking, is slightly larger than San Francisco, where Google’s driverless car program got its start—and the second place where Waymo is scaling up mileage today.

The four Arizona cities where Waymo is operational have a combined population of 1.2+ million. Waymo app downloads are an order of magnitude less than that figure, at ~110,000 (and anyone in the world can download the app, if they’re so inclined). Waymo says it provides hundreds of rides a week, the majority of which, we presume, are repeat customers.

During a recent trip to Chandler, of the roughly two dozen locals in the service area we spoke with, every person was familiar with Waymo, but none had ridden in one. Almost everyone we spoke with was not aware the company now operates a driverless ride-hail service that’s open to the public.

“I’m actually thoroughly impressed….What’s sad is that that machine probably drives better than half the people around here,” Austin, another local told us. But despite being impressed, he’s never taken a Waymo for a spin.

Arm’s length

shot panning down to driverless Waymo

Ryan Duffy

AVs still face a healthy dose of skepticism and mistrust from the general public: A March 2021 Morning Brew-Harris Poll survey found that just 48% of US adults would be somewhat comfortable in the passenger seat of an AV. And for their part, regular drivers in Phoenix show a tendency to keep the technology at arm’s length.

“What happens if there is a glitch—is there a backup system?” Antwoin, an Uber driver who lives in Phoenix, asked us. “That’s what I worry about. What if a satellite goes down and the car just goes crazy?”

Last October, Waymo published a safety report covering 6.1+ million miles of automated driving in Phoenix (and 65,000 driverless miles) from 2019 to Q3 ’20. Of the dataset’s 47 “contact events”—that’s accidents to the rest of us—18 happened IRL. 29 were simulated, with simulation software playing out how Waymo Driver would have acted had a human operator not taken over manual control.

Waymo claims that nearly all contact events involved errors or rule violations by other human drivers or “road users.” 16 were rear-end events; 15 were “angled”; 10 were sideswipes; and three were “single vehicle events” which “involved the Waymo vehicle being struck by a pedestrian or cyclist while stationary.” Finally, there was one simulated head-on collision involving “another vehicle traveling the wrong direction at night."

But this data doesn’t tell the full story. Local police reports (via the Phoenix New Times) highlight incidents in which Waymo Driver appeared to behave erratically. One cyclist told police a van would’ve hit him had he not stopped.

“I am very aware of [Waymos] when I'm running on the road or riding my bike,” Stacy, the Chandler resident, told us. “When I was on my bike, I had one creep up on me. I chose to stop and wait for it to pass because it would not go around me as I was moving.”

While these may be non-falsifiable claims, they still show a suspicion among locals. In our experience, the Waymos we took gave a wide berth to pedestrians in parking lots and cyclists on public roads. See an example here.

In a previous story about Waymo, we met Joel Ricks, a Chandler resident and Waymo One power user. Ricks has notched 160+ rides, during which he regularly tests the robotaxis’ limits and posts his reactions to his YouTube channel.

In May, Ricks posted a video titled: “Waymo Self Driving Taxi Fumbles In Construction Zone, Blocks Traffic.” His robotaxi glitches alongside traffic cones marking a closed lane. Waymo dispatches a team to extricate the vehicle, but suddenly it starts moving again...giving the impression that it’s evading the techs sent to retrieve it.

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Ricks has posted dozens of hours of footage online—mostly humdrum driving clips that get fewer than 10,000 views. But the video of a Waymo glitching went viral, racking up nearly 400,000 views and making headlines around the world.

“As much as I like the videos of really consistent driving performance,” Ricks said, “it’s just not reality” that they’ll get the same attention as something like the construction zone fumble. “A cascading series of failures is always going to be more entertaining to the masses.”

In Ricks’s videos, it’s common to notice tension dissipate once first-time riders get acclimated to the car. This psychological reaction—let’s call it verify, then trust—is not an isolated event. In multiple national surveys, consumers have indicated that they’d trust a self-driving car more after riding in one. But they have to take that initial step first.

Residents pointed to other reasons for avoiding Waymo rides too, beyond safety concerns—some expressed worry about automating away human jobs, while others pointed out that most everyone in the area has a car (Phoenix’s average car ownership is two vehicles per household), so there’s little need for ride-hailing.

“In Chandler, you own your own car,” Ricks said. “There’s no other option if you wanna get anywhere consistently and comfortably.”

Waymo depot

Inside and outside Waymo's depot in south Chandler; Source: Ryan Duffy

For its part, Waymo is trying to address some of these concerns via public education campaigns and outreach. Waymo walked away from the term “self-driving” this January in favor of a more precise, multisyllabic “fully autonomous driving tech.” Just rolls of the tongue, right?

Waymo has also partnered with organizations—most recently, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—for “Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving” (LTAD).

LTAD is equal parts public outreach campaign and mini-media operation. The website answers many of the questions we found ourselves getting in Arizona, like “What if it gets hacked?”

Aldo Vazquez, a spokesman for AAA Arizona, says the company joined LTAD because of the “benefits of automated technology.” 94% of all car crashes are due to human error, he noted, citing NHTSA numbers. AAA believes the technology could help decrease the denominator of that figure: total crashes.

The Foundation for Blind Children is another LTAD partner, and it joined because robotaxis could help extend mobility to those who can’t drive due to physical impairment, and don’t have adequate access to other forms of transportation.

Marc Ashton, the foundation’s CEO, told us AVs “could be the last piece of the puzzle” for blind or visually impaired children. “Our kids can do almost everything,” he said, but mobility “is the last thing.”

Push vs. pull

The AV industry has quickly consolidated. Many of Waymo’s peers have ended up in a similar position: in the hands of a benevolent corporate owner. GM has a majority stake in Cruise; Amazon has all of Zoox; Ford and VW have sizable positions in Argo. Uber and Lyft have finally shaken themselves from their sunk cost fallacies, pawning off their AV divisions in fire sales.

And while some insiders say significant developments are on the horizon, others say progress has stalled out.

Nonetheless, a milestone is a milestone. Waymo One is a real-world robotaxi service. After decades of fully driverless prophecies, robotaxis are really real in a pocket of Phoenix.

And, like Ricks, there are some early adopters out there: Waymo has given tens of thousands of driverless rides in Phoenix since October 2020. The company connected us with Mike, for example, a rider from the service area who has racked up ~4,000 miles across 400+ trips.

“I'm a bit of a technophile…[and] had to give it a shot,” Mike said. He started taking Waymos for his commute (~36 minutes one way), which ultimately influenced his household’s decision to downsize to one car.

“It is a thrill to watch the reactions of friends and relatives when I take them for a little joyride,” Mike said. “My kids aren't in a rush to get their licenses, because they are banking on autonomous cars to give them the freedom that a license gave me at their age.”

But the Mikes and Joels are the exceptions, while more hesitant residents are the rule.

“I’m not ready for that, man. It’s scary,” Selena, a 10-year resident of Arizona, told us. “What happens if something goes wrong with the system? It’s just weird.”

Waymo still faces plenty of technical and financial challenges before it can scale a driverless fleet beyond Phoenix and San Francisco. And even if it can clear those hurdles, the early feedback from AZ suggests there is a massive human challenge to overcome as well.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated when Waymo One was released to the general public. The piece was updated to fix that error. We've also added clarification that a head-on contact event took place in simulation, rather than IRL.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.