The development process for self-driving cars has been called a race by many -- I've certainly referred to it that way many times. But if you're going to start a race, you'd best define the finish line, and I'm afraid nobody was entirely clear on that front. Still, if the winner is the first company to launch a functional and economically viable self-driving car on public streets, then Waymo has just won that race with the launch of Waymo One.
However, there are some important caveats.
Waymo One is the formal name for the former Google Self-Driving Car Project's ride-hailing service, and it launches Wednesday. Look at it as an Uber or Lyft competitor with the remarkable distinction of relying entirely on self-driving cars. Both Uber and Lyft (and many, many others) are working tirelessly to develop autonomous systems, because getting drivers out of those cars is seemingly the only way to make those services economically viable. As if it wasn't clear enough already, with today's launch of Waymo One in Phoenix, all those competitors are lagging behind.
And that's despite this not being exactly the momentous launch that many expected. Though the Waymo One ride-hailing app is now live for Android and iOS, only a very select few will actually be allowed to access the thing. How select? It'll be a subset even of Waymo's own early rider program members, a group that measures only in the hundreds.
So, then, isn't this little more than a bit of a marketing exercise, saying that Waymo has truly launched a public service? Yes and no. Yes in that it's still far from public. We haven't even reached the sort of stage like the early days of Gmail, where users were given select invites to dole out to their best friends and eBay acquaintances. Further limiting the situation is that those limited riders will only be able to use the service in suburban Arizona, specifically Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler.
Despite that, this is a significant step forward, because those who are moved into Waymo One from the company's Early Rider program will now be free of the NDA shackles. So, get ready for some really real impressions of what this service is like to use in the really real world.
Impressions that I'm happy to say I can now give as well, because I've just had a ride myself.
Using the app
The Waymo One app works almost exactly like Uber or Lyft, with you telling it where you are and where you want to go and then it telling you how long your trip will take and how much it's going to cost.
However, there are some key differences. Mainly, the app is more picky about specifying where you want to be picked up and where you want to be dropped off. This includes which side of the street or the exact point in a given parking lot, even recommending the best point of access.
Yes, Uber and Lyft both do this in limited situations now, airports with defined ride-sharing pickup points for example, but Waymo takes it to another level for a very simple reason: You can't shoot your virtual Waymo driver a text to say, "I'm by the hydrant, where ru????"
Once you've entered your coordinates, the app shows you your route, and the cost -- one of my 15-minute rides cost about $7. Accept all that and you'll be presented with the familiar overhead map with a decidedly not-to-scale representation of your van slowly inching its way in your general direction.
However, unlike Uber or Lyft, you're not stuck waiting there for five minutes as your driver inexplicably and infuriatingly sits still. In the few hails I tried the vans started heading my way instantaneously. And once they arrived, it was a simple matter of climbing into the, closing the door and tapping the big, blue button to start the ride.
Hitting the streets
I've been lucky to ride in a lot of prototype autonomous cars, but this is the first one that's ostensibly ready for prime time. And I have to say that in my admittedly brief time riding along, at no point did I feel like the car was anything less than prepared for the challenges it will face in the (decidedly limited) corner of the world carved out for its operation.
That is to say, while Waymo's driver didn't strike me as being perfect, I can say without a doubt that it felt safer than many a driver I've shared a ride with over the years since Uber and Lyft became commonplace.
The car pulled into the flow of traffic without hesitation and proceeded along its route. The roads of the greater Phoenix area are generally wide and well-marked, and this area offers neither the most challenging geography nor climate known to mankind. However, every area has its complications, and the car had to manage numerous pedestrians and cyclists along the way.
This it did cleanly. When the car needs to change lanes it announces its intentions before doing so and in turning it follows a smooth, clean line. Yes, some may be frustrated by the strict observance of every letter of the law, but you'd be surprised how little you care about waiting an extra few seconds at every intersection when you're comfortably situated in the back of a clean, well-driven car that doesn't smell like whatever's left of the lunch the driver stuffed under the passenger seat before picking you up.
I was fully ready to give the car full marks for behavior when, on our final trip back to our point of origin, it unexpectedly hit the brakes while cruising along at a little over 40 miles per hour. After a moment of seeming indecision, the car accelerated to regain its speed and all was smooth, leaving me perplexed.
That is, until I looked at the status display in front of me. There, the Waymo system was highlighting a car that had nosed a little too far out into traffic, posing a potential threat for collision if it had continued. I hadn't even noticed the other car, as I was in the midst of checking my notes and trying to deliver some commentary to camera, but Waymo's bevy of sensors and systems had.
Was it being too cautious in hitting the brakes like that? Maybe, but once I spotted why, I didn't mind.
We're so used to riding in cars with other human beings behind the wheel that your first go in a driverless car can feel like going hang-gliding without first connecting your harness. In a normal car, with a fleshy driver, you can check with a glance that they've spotted that bumbling pedestrian or wayward cyclist. When your driver is little more than a software routine cycling away on some GPU buried in the guts of the car, the lack of body language can be disconcerting.
Waymo addresses this in two ways. First, the company moved its safety operators back to the driver's seat. The operator is there to monitor the car and take over should something go wrong. Waymo is confident enough in its cars that it had moved those drivers to the passenger seat, but after feedback from backseat riders indicated having nobody at all behind the wheel made them nervous, Waymo moved the operators back over to the left.
"Being incremental is the right approach to rolling this out," Waymo's Director of Product Daniel Chu told me. "It is a source of comfort. It's something that helps newer riders."
But the other, bigger avenue of assurance comes from the suite of displays inside the car. These show a simplified view of what the car itself sees. For now, this is a vital part of the equation that will further soothe nervous riders.
Waymo's interface is the cleanest I've yet seen in a self-driving car, abstracting other cars as blue boxes and highlighting pedestrians with white bases, almost making them look like chess pieces. At a glance you can see everything the car sees, and it is indeed just about everything to be seen. But, when something in particular is causing the car to do something unexpected (like hit the brakes, or sit longer than seemingly necessary at an intersection) the interface highlights that item with a slight pulse of light.
Nearly prime time
I had high expectations for this ride on public streets and I have to say I wasn't disappointed. But that doesn't mean Waymo is done. The company's early rider program continues, those select members having early access to things like expanded service areas and, eventually, a broader selection of cars. (will be next joining the fun.)
And then there's expansion. The last time I, he committed to rolling the service out to the San Francisco Bay Area next, a process that'll surely start at a trickle much like it has in Arizona.
That race to develop a self-driving car, then, is clearly more of a marathon than a sprint. It's a race that may never truly end, with these cars simply getting better and better, more and more capable until one day we look back and wonder how we got along without them -- much like we look at smartphones today.
So, without a finish line we may never truly be able to crown a winner as such, but what I can say is this: Right now Waymo sure looks like it has one hell of a lead.