When you think about a self-driving vehicle, what comes to mind? Artificial intelligence on four wheels? A mobile machine with a mind of its own? An unpredictable road hazard? While many people think more positively about autonomous vehicles (and for good reason), there are some whose concerns range from the curious to the catastrophic. For this very reason, Waymo developed an ingenious interactive program for residents of the PHX East Valley to help better convey the perks, plusses and overall essence of autonomous vehicles.

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As the first and only company to operate fully autonomous rides for members of the public, Waymo created the “Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving” initiative. Formerly “Let’s Talk Self-Driving,” (est. 2017), Waymo dropped the more misconstrued term “self-driving” in favor of “autonomous.” It’s one example of the many ways Waymo continues to remain vigilant in its pursuit to educate the public and highlight the more positive and plentiful aspects of autonomous vehicles.

Putting the public in the driver’s seat

“Public trust is key to the success of autonomous driving technology,” explains Amanda Ventura-Zink, Waymo’s public affairs manager. “It’s human nature to be apprehensive about the unknown. To help address this, Waymo created the world’s first public education initiative around autonomous vehicles with ‘Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving.’”

Ventura-Zink further elaborates that this public education opportunity brings together a diverse set of communities and interests — all of whom share a belief that fully autonomous driving technology has the potential to save lives, improve independence and create new mobility options. Locally, Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving partners on education efforts with nonprofits and organizations, including Foundation for Blind Children, Foundation for Senior Living, Red Means Stop, AAA, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and PHX East Valley Partnership.

Additionally, Let’s Talk Autonomous Driving supports local partners’ annual events and shared messaging through its blog, social media, public outreach and events. This includes partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s (MADD) “Tie One On for Safety Campaign.” And, as part of the initiative, a self-guided virtual road-safety curriculum was developed for high
school students.

Green lighting greater safety awareness

One thing that Waymo has and continues to include in its commitment to educate the public is safety awareness. A recent story in Discover revealed that not a single Waymo vehicle (to date) has been involved in a serious incident.

“Waymo has been dedicated and committed to transparency and to safety,” says Kevin Hartke, mayor of Chandler. “That’s been an important factor in building community trust for us. And they have tested millions and millions of miles on public roads, and a large portion of that driving has been in Chandler and the surrounding East Valley. They’ve worked with our public safety department to literally rewrite the book in terms of how to respond to incidents. And, it’s become a national model.”

Part of how Waymo is helping increase the public’s understanding of autonomous vehicle safety is listening to — and dispelling — common, but often unmitigated fears.

For example, the distinction between “self-driving” and “autonomous.”

“This is a seemingly small but important change to help better inform the public about what Waymo’s technology is and how it is unique from other technologies people may be familiar with,” Ventura-Zink says. “We’re hopeful that consistency will help differentiate the fully autonomous technology Waymo is developing from driver-assist technologies (sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘self-driving’ technologies) that require oversight from licensed human drivers for safe operation.”

Driving the local economy upward and onward

Since its inception in 2009, Waymo’s autonomous-driving technology has put in upwards of 20 million miles on real roads — many of which are nestled in the East Valley. And, because of Waymo’s local presence, several PHX East Valley communities and the region at large have benefited economically.

“We have hundreds of trained vehicle operators and autonomous-driving operations teams housed in our 60,000-square-foot full-service center in Chandler and our 85,000-square-foot technical service center in Mesa,” Ventura-Zink says. “Because actual mobility can have such a large impact on economic mobility, we also believe better transportation will open up economic opportunity to millions of people through access to employment and other services.”

“I know that beyond the direct impact of their being an employer, they have put Chandler and the East Valley on the map around the world as a location for autonomous vehicles,” Hartke adds. “That certainly helps our overall profile and look. So, when people want to know about us or are looking for more information, we pop up on the grid.”

Beyond the economic fruits Waymo delivers to the region and state, the company also takes great care in offering additional community benefits. During COVID-19, Waymo parcelled out some of its local fleet vehicles to facilitate charitable donations. These vehicles were used to help donate delivery services to several partner organizations (United Food Bank, Valley of the Sun United Way, ICAN: Positive Programs for Youth, and AZCEND, among others). Supplies, including food, personal protective equipment, learning equipment, and family activity kits were driven to schools, food banks, organizations and homes for those in need.

“PHX East Valley is an innovation-minded region that shares our vision of improving mobility for all,” Ventura-Zink says. “The support of the community and government in the East Valley has allowed us to continue to grow and thrive to further advance the services we can offer.”