It’s unseasonably windy as I’m perched on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Fillmore Street. A woman in a blue nylon sweatsuit is the only other witness to the unmanned white vehicle that whips around the corner. Adorned with my initials — “AB” — on a display mounted to the roof, the car chimes “Hello Abigail” as I swing open the door and step into my autonomous vehicle.
Inside it’s clean, almost sterile. It’s as if I’m the only person that has ever been in this car, and there’s a certain intimacy that comes with that.
But the thrill doesn’t last as long as the stares from passersby do. I decide to go to a coffee shop I’ve never been to 20 minutes east of me. I depart at 3 p.m. on a Thursday, not realizing the autonomous vehicle would have to traverse three different bustling school zones.
Within the first two minutes I’m face-to-face with a group of boys each no older than 14. They spot the Waymo, and then they spot me sitting inside of it. They wave and yell as they inch away from the curb and toward the car, trying to catch a glimpse of the vacant driver’s seat.
This kind of reaction continues; I spend the nearly half-hour ride being gawked at. Everyone ogling at the Waymo always turns to catch a glimpse of its companion and cargo: me. The Waymo and I developed a unique connection. If we were going to be a spectacle, at least we were going to experience it together.
At one stoplight, a man in a chartreuse Kia Soul has to be honked at in order for him to snap his eyes away from the Waymo. He never sees me. He does a double-take, rolls down his window and adjusts his glasses. He squints a bit and then re-focuses his attention to the road.
The Waymo knows the area — the sidestreets, the inner workings of old neighborhoods, the stop sign 300 yards ahead — but it soon becomes abundantly clear that the area does not know it. Or maybe the area just doesn’t trust it quite yet.
Eventually, I just sit back and take in the side of Phoenix I hadn’t met yet. I see old homes with porches decorated with rocking chairs and mismatched flower pots. Sun-bleached toys scattered across overgrown lawns.
I get to see the smaller things — all the things I wouldn’t have seen if I were the one driving.
I can’t figure out how to play music on the way to the coffee shop, so I just sit in silence the whole way there. It was uncomfortable at first. I try to hum to myself, but that was even more awkward, so I just sit. I settle into the sounds of the car and of my environment. There are rarely times when I can do that, when I can just ... be.
At one point we pass another Waymo and I almost wave. It feels like walking past that one friend you only talk to in the one class you two share — a welcome, but fleeting, surprise.
After arriving to the coffee shop, spilling my drink on a clean counter, getting a fresh green tea made by a barista with a blonde mohawk and finally making my swift escape, I order another Waymo to take me back.
On the way home, I sit in the front seat and figure out how to control the music — Mitski was my artist of choice — and I just watch my surroundings pass me by again. It is all I can do for that window of time. It is nice.
In November 2022, Waymo One, an app offering ride-hailing service via autonomous vehicles, was introduced to metro Phoenix along with parades of Waymo’s sleek white Jaguars and Chryslers, changing the rideshare model as we know it. At the time, the service sparked discussions among students about the safety, legitimacy and accessibility of self-driven vehicles on and around ASU’s Downtown Phoenix and Tempe campuses.
Waymo One is an app — owned by Alphabet, Inc., the parent company of Google — similar to Uber and Lyft. Where it differs from the two rideshare powerhouses is in allowing customers to order a fully autonomous vehicle to drive them around. For now, it’s only available within the boundaries of certain metro Phoenix areas, namely downtown Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler and parts of Tempe.
Chris Bonelli, a product communications manager at Waymo, broke down what a rider can expect from a Waymo ride, emphasizing the importance of a seamless user experience.
Each Waymo has two screens that show the rider exactly what the vehicle is seeing. Moving squares on the screen represent nearby cars and traffic cones, displaying upcoming hazards or obstacles in the road.
“With 29 cameras, a lot of radar and, additionally, lidar, or laser-based sensor input, the vehicle has a 360-degree view of all its surroundings at any given time,” Bonelli said. The purpose of the screens is to “show you as the rider that the vehicle is seeing, addressing and reacting to the environment appropriately.”
Katelynne Newman, a freshman majoring in communication and organizational leadership, hates Waymos. “They drive, like, incredibly odd,” Newman said, adding that she has observed Waymos in Tempe directly affect local traffic in a negative way.
“As soon as you see a Waymo, everyone just starts getting over and then traffic starts building up in one lane because of the f— Waymo bogging everyone down,” Newman said, adding that her experience as a commuter having to travel to and from school often has become more stressful with Waymos driving around.
I understand where she’s coming from. My Waymo consistently drove exactly the speed limit, and Arizona drivers are not exactly known for carefully following the rules of the road or being as cautious as the Waymo was programmed to be. It seems that Waymos are habitually adapting to the environment as it should be, not the environment as it is, said Newman.
This raises a genuine safety concern for Newman. Sure, the vehicle has the software and hardware that make it objectively safe. But even Bonelli noted that “humans are just intrinsically fallible.”
The autonomous vehicles are “never drunk, drowsy or distracted” Bonelli added. However, the root of Newman’s concerns isn’t that Waymos will run red lights or cut people off, it’s that they are disrupting a city that is already busy and already difficult to navigate by being — dare I say — overly robotic in their mannerisms.
Despite the bolstered safety that comes with not having a driver who can make mistakes, autonomous vehicles are not immune to being in and causing accidents. Between July 2021 and January 2023, there have been 29 crashes involving autonomous vehicles in Arizona.
Autonomous equals accessible
With no one commanding the vehicle, staples of traditional rideshare apps like uncomfortable small talk and the additional cost of tipping are long forgotten with Waymos.
Thomas Taylor, a junior studying urban and metropolitan studies, frequently uses Waymos to run errands around Phoenix.
Like many out-of-state students, Taylor doesn’t keep a car on campus. With Waymo, he said, the ride-hailing service has provided him with a newfound sense of independence.
“I could easily get somewhere and I don’t have to ask a friend and I don’t need to feel like I’m relying on someone else,” Taylor said. He’s been able to go to the grocery store, travel to the airport and go shopping for clothes with Waymos without feeling self-conscious about not owning a car.
“The car culture in Phoenix is really strong,” Taylor said, describing how he has felt anxious when casually running errands with Uber or Lyft. The awkward feeling of entering an Uber with arms full of groceries is something that dissipates entirely with Waymos, Taylor said.
Although downtown Phoenix has affordable public transport, Taylor feels it isn’t readily accessible to all students. Instead of having to travel to Tempe on the light rail to shop at Trader Joe’s, he’s able to use a Waymo to get to a store closer to downtown Phoenix, saving more time than he would have using a typical ride-hailing service.
Waymos also provide an aspect of privacy that sets them apart from Uber and Lyft. Bonelli described an experience where he was using an Uber and had to take a confidential business call at the same time. For him, the two didn’t mix.
The worry of a stranger overhearing a personal conversation, knowing your home address or seeing you at your sloppiest at 2 a.m. on a Friday just doesn’t matter when it comes to Waymos.
The experience is intended to be the same every single time. The same cars. The same screens.
Both Taylor and Bonelli recognized the significance of Waymo’s product consistency.
“When I hail an Uber, I’m gonna get paired with either a 2022 Lexus or a 2003 Prius and anything in between,” Bonelli said.
The future of campus transport
Aviral Shrivastava, a professor at the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, described Waymos as “fancy new toys” that will become more normalized as they become more common.
“I think if this technology — and I think it’s not a question of if, I mean when — this technology becomes prevalent and successful, I think the costs of these rides will go dramatically down and that (will) be a real game changer and have a real impact on society,” Shrivastava said.
If autonomous vehicles become more prevalent in areas surrounding college campuses, then they will take up more space in society at large, he said. If they become more readily available and affordable, then people might stray away from owning their own cars.
Despite the increasing popularity of Waymos, the rise of autonomous ride-hailing is still very much in its infancy, Shrivastava said. There is “no good and easy answer” for predicting when and how autonomous vehicles will become a normal part of everyday life, he added.
“I think a lot of people are imagining that it will be decades before autonomous cars become very prevalent,” said Shrivastava. “I look forward to that time.”
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Alexis Moulton, Sam Ellefson and Greta Forslund.
This story is part of The Automation Issue which was released on March 15, 2023. See the entire publication here.