Waymo self-driving car

Waymo’s self-driving cars have been driving around Chandler since April 2016. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard, Az Business magazine)

January 13, 2017

AZ Big Media

What it’s like to ride in a Waymo self-driving car

There are cameras, lasers and radar sensors attached to a Waymo self-driving car's exterior. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard, Az Business magazine)
There are cameras, lasers and radar sensors attached to a Waymo self-driving car’s exterior. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard, Az Business magazine)

It’s an interesting feeling when the person behind the wheel of a moving car tells you they don’t have their hands on the wheel or their feet on the pedals. A mix of excitement peppered with a little bit of worry ran through my mind today as I took a ride in a Waymo self-driving car with AZRE Associate Editor David McGlothlin and Waymo test-drivers.

Once the car started moving along, though, I felt completely relaxed and at ease as we watched the car maneuver turns, yield to traffic, stop, accelerate and more as if a human were driving it.

On Thursday, Waymo, the self-driving car company that was formerly a Google project, took members of the media out for a spin around Chandler. We rode with two test drivers, who have been sitting back as the machine does the driving for a while now here in Arizona, and with Waymo’s head of communications, Johnny Luu.

Waymo’s self-driving cars have improved by four times last year. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard)

Waymo has been testing about 12 of its self-driving cars in Chandler and around the Valley since last April. Luu told us Waymo is expecting to log 3 million miles of test-driving by this May between its many cars driving around the country.

Last year, the self-driving cars and the software controlling them improved by four times, Luu says, meaning the test-drivers behind the wheel who are ready to take over at a moment’s notice have been doing the actual driving less often.

The self-driving cars are guided by three types of sensors, which can track things up to 656 feet. There are cameras to notice color, lasers to map a 3-D world for the car’s software and radar to figure out the speed of objects around the car.

Waymo's sensors track many types of obstacles as it drives. Test-drivers use a laptop to see what the car is seeing. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard, Az Business magazine)
Waymo’s sensors track many types of obstacles as it drives, which test-drivers can see. (Photo by Jesse A. Millard, Az Business magazine)

There were two test drivers riding in the front as we took a spin in the Waymo car. One was behind the wheel, ready to take control if something occurred (which didn’t happen) and another driver with a laptop. The laptop showed us a live-feed of what the cameras were seeing as we rode around Chandler’s neighborhoods. On ordinary test runs they would be taking notes of how the car was performing its maneuvers.

When you looked at the screen you could see all of the objects the car sees, and if you’d look out the window, sure enough that object would be there. The car’s sensors tracked a lot. Moving or parked cars, pedestrians on either side of the street, lights, stop signs and even speed bumps could be sensed by the car as it moved along.

The car slowed down when we crossed speed bumps, stopped at stop signs and lights, calculated whether to go through or stop at a yellow light and even slowed down when a pedestrian was walking in the bike lane instead of on the sidewalk.

Luu says, Arizona presents a unique testing ground for Waymo’s self-driving cars. Our streets are larger and faster than most cities. The Valley is also a lot more sprawled out too, compared to other testing grounds like Mountain View, California, where Google and Waymo are headquartered.

Arizona’s unique weather also allows Waymo to see how the self-driving cars would react in strange things like a haboob or our extremely hot summers.

As we drove around, the test-drivers told us about how nice it is to be in the car during rush-hour traffic. They see everyone with the usual scorn for the traffic on their faces, but in a self-driving car all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

I can easily imagine myself in a self-driving car, answering emails, making calls or just reading a book.

Luu says, it’s hard to tell when folks will be able to sit back in their very own self-driving cars, but they’re making strides in testing everyday.

Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations at Waymo, said earlier in December at a Waymo event, the car has been under development since 2009 when it was still a Google project.

Although it’s hard for Waymo to put a time stamp on when you’ll be able to purchase a self-driving car, Haroon said, the cars will be available sooner than folks think.

I was a bit sad when the drive was over. Being in a moving car that isn’t being controlled by a human was a thrill, and it will be very interesting to watch Waymo’s progress.

This week, Waymo announced it will have a self-driving minivan traversing the Phoenix roads by the end of the month, so soon you’ll have to keep an eye out for a self-driving Lexus and minivan.

Now, the question has to be asked, would you ride in a self-driving car?