Waymo Launches “Rider Only” Service in Arizona Geofence (when the weather is good)

New from Andrew J Hawkins at The Verge this morning:

I’m in the middle seat of a Chrysler Pacifica minivan, heading north on Dobson Road in Chandler, Arizona, when I notice we may have taken a wrong turn. Under normal circumstances, I would just lean forward and ask the driver for an explanation. But in this case, that’s not possible. There is, after all, no driver to ask.

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Going the wrong way seems to be a common problem with Waymo’s cars, as noted in rider feedback:

“Rerouted several times along the way, adding 20 minutes to an 18 minute drive”

Waymo Customer Feedback, The Information

They actually pre-approved this journalist’s route in advance and still couldn’t get it to go where it was going without making a wrong turn.

Last October, Alphabet’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo emailed its customers in the suburbs of Phoenix to let them know that “completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way.

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October? As in… two months ago? I guess they were “on the way” in the same as that Waymo rider who thought his trip would take 18 minutes.

For several years, Waymo has offered its autonomous taxi service to a small group of people, but the rides typically included a safety driver behind the steering wheel. Now, Waymo is saying more of those rides will take place sans safety driver, a sign that the company is growing confident in the accuracy of its technology.

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Congratulations to Waymo on this milestone. So, what’s the catch?

Weeks later, I’m in one of the company’s driverless minivans going the wrong way. But before I can ponder my new life as a victim of robot kidnapping, the vehicle realizes its mistake and reroutes. Rather than taking a left on West Baseline Road, we ended up going right.

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Left, right, what’s the difference? They’re both good, aren’t they?

(A spokesperson later theorizes the car wasn’t quick enough to make the left.) A quick detour through a residential neighborhood puts us back on course. It’s a minor error, but I can’t help but wonder what other surprises await me during my brief trip in one of the world’s only fully driverless vehicles operating on public roads today.

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Most people would be crapping their pants at this point.

“Well, it went right instead of left but I’m sure everything else will work safely and as expected!”

It’s not a big deal, but I’ve ridden in a fully driverless Waymo once before. It was October 2017, but that ride was on a private road — actually a decommissioned Air Force base in California’s Central Valley, which is now owned by Alphabet — completely separated from the chaos and unpredictability of US roads. I’ve taken a total of four trips with Waymo, mostly with trained safety drivers in the front seat

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Google has been working on its self-driving car project for 10 years now. How much closer are we to trying Waymo ourselves than the last time Andrew took a fully driverless ride in 2017? I don’t know, but at $400,000 a car, I don’t see this being viable as a business just based on unit economics.

It is also entirely mundane, as any 15-minute ride-hailing trip through suburban America in 2019 would be. The future of transportation is here, and it’s driving the wrong way past row after row of soulless terra cotta strip malls.

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That future sounds pretty shitty.

I keep glancing over at other drivers on the road, expecting looks of shock and amazement. Check me out in this driverless car! 

No one looks. 

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If you want people to look at you, don’t take a ride in Mom’s self-driving minivan. It’s okay though –– you really don’t want to be seen in that thing anyway.

Last week, Waymo said it has around 1,500 monthly active users from both programs.

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Impressive numbers, but of course not even in the same universe as Uber or Lyft.

It’s been an enormously difficult, complicated slog, and it’s far more complicated and involved than we thought it would be. But it is a huge deal.

Nathaniel Fairfield, Waymo Software Engineer

Oh good! So after 10 years of difficult hard work, are you ready to launch Waymo around the world? Around America at least?

The geofence, or the defined geographic area, for the company’s fully driverless vehicles is much smaller, about half the size of the overall service area — or about 50 square miles. The vehicles technically can’t pick up or drop off passengers outside that zone. Even more complicated: Waymo’s fleet operations center is located outside the geofence, so a Waymo employee needs to chaperone the fully driverless-enabled vehicles into the zone each time before it makes pickups.

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Okay. So they’re launching into a geofenced area that’s 7 by 7 miles wide. Remember: If you see a geofence, they blew it.

Only members of Waymo’s early rider program are allowed to ride in the company’s driverless vehicles. Those people sign nondisclosure agreements with the company in order to get access to early versions of Waymo’s technology. This bars them from speaking publicly when, say, one of their trips goes off course. 

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It’s so good, you’re legally forbidden from speaking about it! Wouldn’t want the competition or the media to find out how awesome it is.

We have seen some leaked Waymo customer feedback. And it’s not pretty.

Oh, and “fully driverless” isn’t the only way the company describes these trips. Waymo also prefers “rider only.” My guess is a focus group told them that sounded less scary than “fully driverless.”

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There is actually still someone monitoring the ride from a remote operations center, so rider only makes a lot more sense. “Fully driverless” is almost too buzzwordy to mean anything anymore.

There are other conditions to the driverless rides. I was surprised to learn that Waymo lets them drive at night, but not when it’s raining or during Phoenix’s frequent dust storms (which are known to locals as “haboobs”).

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It’s been widely reported that Waymo doesn’t work in the rain, snow or apparently even in the dust. That’s why a 7 mile by 7 mile stretch of Chandler, Arizona is the only place they’re willing to try driverless rides out.

But what happens if it starts raining or getting dusty halfway through the ride? Does the car just pull over? Autopilot has fewer problems in bad weather because it only uses cameras. Waymo’s LIDAR sensors don’t work in bad weather, so if you depend on them to make the driving experience safe your car becomes less safe when the weather gets worse.

A car that doesn’t work when it starts raining might sound ridiculous, but that’s the future Google is bringing us.

These driverless cars aren’t totally alone in the wilderness. Waymo has a team of remote employees that watch the real-time feeds of each vehicle’s eight cameras and can help, with the push of a button, if the software runs into a difficult spot and needs a human eye to figure out what’s going on. I counted at least two cameras in the headliner watching me, but no one from the rider assistance team checked in during the ride.

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Big brother is always watching. Now, instead of a safety driver sitting in the Waymo with you, they’ll be sitting somewhere else where you can’t see them and watching you through cameras! Genius! This will definitely help bring down the cost of transportation since drivers will sit in cubicles instead of cars. Right?

Waymo avoids making projections about when driverless cars will go mainstream, but most experts agree that early self-driving predictions were overly optimistic. A starry-eyed assessment is 10 years. Many others say decades as researchers try to conquer a number of obstacles. The vehicles themselves will debut in limited, well-mapped areas within cities and spread outward.

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Waymo, which started development 10 years ago, burns over $1 billion a year. Make no mistake about it, they will be bankrupt before they have the chance to hit the 20-year mark.

Again, if you see a geo-fence they blew it. The car needs to be able to handle any new environment, and understand what’s going on. By focusing only on difficult city centers, Waymo, Cruise, Uber, Lyft, and others have completely surrendered the market for inter-city autonomous travel to Tesla’s Autopilot.

This isn’t the first time Waymo has unveiled fully driverless cars to much fanfare. On November 7th, 2017, Waymo CEO John Krafcik took the stage at a tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal, and said, “Fully self-driving cars are here.” He showed a video of the company’s driverless vehicles picking up and dropping off passengers in Chandler.

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So how’d that go? And exactly how is this PR stunt different from the one they pulled in Chandler over 2 years ago?

But that didn’t really happen. The company released another video in May 2018 that was pretty similar to the first: passengers giggling nervously at the sight of an empty driver’s seat, wondering aloud whether passersby are also slightly freaked out, and making casual references to “the future.” One man gets so bored that he falls asleep. 

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You can make a million PR videos, but when can I try Waymo for myself? I’m dying to experience it as a passenger and see what they’ve been working on for myself. At a price of over $400,000 a car (according to The Verge), I don’t see how that is going to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, reports begin to circulate about problems with Waymo’s driving. The company’s most advanced vehicles were still occasionally confounded by certain traffic situations, which suggests the tech — while incredibly advanced — was not quite ready for the public rollout Waymo was predicting. By mid-2018, the company began putting trained safety drivers back in the driverless vehicles, according to The Information. And the company stopped talking publicly about its driverless trips.

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Translation: It was an utter disaster. Really, you have to read this Waymo feedback The Information got a hold of for yourself.

I learn that the cone-shaped roof-mounted LIDAR sensors — arguably the most important piece of hardware on the self-driving car — can get really filthy during each shift. Enough dirt builds up, and the LIDAR’s ability to send out hundreds of thousands of laser beams to map the surrounding environment can be diminished. But with the touch of a button, tiny windshield wipers pop out, then twirl around the surface of the sensor amid a spray of cleaning fluid. Presto: clean LIDAR.

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Yet another reason LIDAR is useless: it doesn’t work when it’s dirty.

Waymo has long argued that driver-assistance technology like Tesla’s Autopilot will just exacerbate the problem. Only by completely eliminating human involvement can we be assured that driverless cars are safe, they argue. But is Waymo getting around this problem by removing the driver, or actually creating new complications altogether?

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The “stupid robot drives instead of me” model will be a failure with consumers. Nobody wants to sit in the back seat of a Waymo hoping the programmers don’t kill them. The next step forward in autonomy is a symbiosis of man and machine.

Otherwise, you end up in a situation like this:

Toward the end of the trip, as we’re moving slowly through the parking lot of a restaurant called the Watershed, the minivan comes to an abrupt halt: a flock of pigeons is in the way.

Is this a false positive? A sign that autonomous vehicles will be braking for every last animal or floating plastic bag that enters its field of view? 

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Read the full story at The Verge

5 thoughts on “Waymo Launches “Rider Only” Service in Arizona Geofence (when the weather is good)

  1. 1) Fail on CapEx: Expensive FSD equipment, sensitive to changes in meteorological conditions
    2) Fail on OpEx: POWER HUNGRY hardware which would suck dry a BEV and may be possible only on ICE or at best PHEV. They can’t compete against a top energy efficient BEV like a Tesla Model 3.
    3) Fail on R&D: they all pay engineers to drive/supervise a few thousands of miles while Tesla GETS PAID to have millions of miles driven/supervised with a relatively small team to process data collected from the fleet.
    4) Fail on marketing/brand recognition: imagine you can get a nice Tesla Model Y robotaxi, with Netflix, YouTube or Spotify on, with your settings/accounts automatically loaded when you swipe your card or tap your phone on the car vs. a monster of a minivan, with the equivalent of a mattress on the roof, spewing fumes at children on the street, with Google employees supervising you via webcams… :S

  2. Tesla has less than 20 days to get its FSD out to early access. But did you forget that enhanced autopark has to go out first? 2 major enhancements in 19 days? I think my prediction of FSD not making 2019 is looking better and better each day…

    1. I think they will push auto park into 2020 and focus on navigate on autopilot on city streets early access before the end of the year. they are making progress and can do it. it’s just early access

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