Whenever the cost is not significant, I behave like an early adopter. That’s why I started using LinkedIn in 2002, and I continue to check out whatever tech innovation shows up that I can check out for a nominal fee, or for free.
So when I was for a few days in Phoenix, Arizona; I couldn’t resist to test out Waymo. They have been operating a full-fledged robo-taxi service in this city since its announcement in November 2022. That’s right, autonomous driving, no person behind the wheel, but also available for the “proletariat”.
It seemed like the right choice to get myself to the airport. I had to make a little bit of an effort to catch it, because we were staying right outside of the service area, so I had to first hitch a ride with an Uber, whose driver happened to be deaf, so he was not much for a conversation, and was navigating strictly by what the app said. This will come in as a particularly interesting parallel.
I managed to get myself to get a Latte at “Deseo” a super-cute coffee shack in Waymo’s service area that I would recommend anybody, even for a date.
I also had to download their app, configure it, and add a credit card to it to be able to request rides. So when I was done with my latte, I proceeded to call for one on the app. That experience is very similar to Uber’s, with the exception that -apparently- they only pickup at designated quieter streets, so I had to walk a few yards to get to the point.
Once it arrived, I had to fumble with the app to unlock the door, which is a stand-in for my usual “are you Steven?” to the Uber driver, and then, once aboard, I had to instruct Waymo to start the drive, through a button that appeared both on my phone and on the screen in the middle of the two back seats.
To experience the ride, check out the embedded video, but for the most, it was just like any other ride share ride.
That was the most remarkable of the whole experience: the unremarkable it was. The Waymo behaves very much like a human driver. Once, it had to stop behind cars at a read light, and it skillfully eased itself behind the car in front, overshooting a bit to its left and then straightening out, to be nicely aligned; a maneuver that reminded me one that I made thousands of times while driving in Caracas, to make room for the deluge of moto-boys menacingly coming from behind.
One another opportunity, it just changed lanes, like letting the impatient drivers behind letting pass. And one, very human-like behavior was when it spotted a red light, and a car stopped at it like 300 yards in front of us, and it started to slow down, but as the light changed to green and the vehicle in front of us took off, Waymo resumed its cruising speed.
There are two things that stuck with me. First, good and advanced technology has to deliver a familiar experience. The “magic” that this technology may be indistinguishable from (in Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law fashion), is the lack of a driver. I can picture some movie where someone travels from the 50’s to this time and is made to believe that our taxi drivers have the power to become invisible (not a bad one for privacy reasons).
Second, I knew that one of the perks of getting into a taxi or a ride share is to talk to someone, but this whole experience, and the one before, with the deaf driver, has really “driven” that home.
Talk to your driver. Always. You are going to miss that.