Waymo’s driverless car: ghost-riding in the back seat


(enticing music) – Hey it’s Andy with “The Verge.” I’m about to go for a ride in one of Waymo’s fully driverless cars, here in Phoenix, Arizona. As you can see, there is
no driver in the front. I’m not nervous. Are you nervous? I’m not nervous. Here we are, riding in a minivan with nobody in the front
seat, with pedestrians, and cyclists and other
vehicles out on a public road. It’s a surreal experience. Google has been working
on self-driving cars for over 10 years now. In 2016, Google spun out its project as a separate company called Waymo. And since then, it’s been
testing hundreds of vehicles here in Arizona, mostly for an Uber-like
ride hailing service called Waymo One. Few years ago, I had the chance to ride in one of Waymo’s
driverless vehicles, but it was on a private enclosed course. And since then, most of
the trips that Waymo does in its autonomous vehicles, including the one that we took last year, have trained safety drivers
in the front seat, until now. It says, “Good morning, Waymo rider. “Our destination is Baby
Kay’s Cajun Kitchen.” It’s asking me to start
the ride, so let’s do that. – [Waymo Car Voice] Heading
to Baby Kay’s Cajun Kitchen. Please make sure your
seat belt is fastened. – All right, so we’re pulling out of this parking lot right now
and onto a public road. Oh, there goes another Waymo car. As you can see, we’re in
the Waymo central here. They just waved to us. I don’t think they knew
that maybe wasn’t anybody in the front seat there. And then we just made a right-hand turn, and changed lanes into the center lane. It’s very natural. So here comes some
construction right here, which is very challenging
for self-driving cars. And it kind of handled it
with really no problem at all. It slowed down a bit,
now it’s changing lanes. And it just kinda breezed
past that construction site there as if it was being driven
by a human, quite honestly. This is our destination. Nothing really eventful to speak of. Now, it’s coming back right now, and we’re gonna take it for a ride back to where we came from,
which is the Watershed. Waymo was nice enough to let
us choose the pick up spot and the destination for where we’re going. We had to vet it with them first, but still, it’s nice to know that there’s a little bit
of dynamic decision making going on here with this car. I’ll get in first, if you don’t mind. All our stuff is still here. That’s great. We can trust these robots. This time I’m gonna
press the button up here on the headliner, which is another way that we can get the car to get going. That was a pretty nice acceleration there, not as cautious as you maybe expect. It felt very organic. Yeah, that’s really, really weird, seeing the steering wheel
move on its own like that. I like the notice on
the steering wheel, too. It says, do not touch
steering wheel or pedals, the vehicle will pull over. As sort of a warning to anyone that might try to mess
with the driverless car. Looks like we’re gonna be taking a right-hand turn here on Henkel, which looks like it’s gonna be into some bit of residential area. So away from the more heavily
traffic commercial zone that we are in and into a
more of a residential zone. Interesting. So it looks like we’re making
a bit of a routing correction. We’re going back the way we
came, and the car is making some adjustments into the
route that it’s choosing. Obviously, we’ll allow that. (laughs) We have to make some allowances for a car with nobody in the front seat. It’ll be interesting to
see how Waymo smooths out some of those things,
though, going forward, as this becomes a service that
is available to more people. And it looks like we’re gonna be turning into the left turning lane as
we approach our destination. And this is the part where I get a selfie for my own purposes. I’m about to take a left turn
in a fully driverless car. – [Waymo Car] Arriving
shortly at Watershed. – We did it! And we’re making our way
slowly around the parking lot to drop us off at the
entrance to The Watershed. And then we’ll be done and we
will say goodbye to our Waymo. Oh, it stopped for the
pigeons, you love to see it. You absolutely love to see
them stopping for the pigeons. No other company is testing
fully driverless vehicles at the scale and speed that Waymo is. The company has trained
its AI with a vast data set of images and driving scenarios. It has a highly detailed
high-def map of the whole area down to the centimeter. It took Waymo a decade
to get to this point, where it felt confident
enough in the safety of its technology to pull
drivers out of the driver seat. But, you know, only for
a tightly controlled 50 square mile area, mostly suburban and mostly dry conditions, with
a pretty basic road layout. And these vehicles aren’t
totally alone in the wilderness. Waymo has a team of remote employees that watch the real time feed from each of the vehicle’s eight cameras, and can help with the touch of a button if the software runs into a tricky spot and needs a human eye to figure it out. – These folks don’t joystick
the car or anything like that, but they can help answer
specific questions that a car might have about
an ambiguous situation. And that’s where human intuition
and human understanding of the entire context is super important. Like that moving van, is
it really staying there? Or is it about to start driving? Well, if the door’s down and they’re unloading
a lamp out of the back, it’s gonna be there for a while. That’s not something we’ve
gotten around to making the car smart enough to understand,
but a human sees it in a moment and can send that signal. So it’s not really a command to the car, it’s just adding information. – [Andy] When you think
about self-driving cars, you probably picture something
from like “Minority Report” or “Total Recall.” – Drive! – Fully driverless cars with
no one in the front seat, or maybe no front seat at all, or a steering wheel for that matter. While Waymo’s driverless vehicles are getting us closer
to that imagined future, there’s still a lot going
on behind the scenes that we don’t see. I mean, the level of production required for each of these driverless
vehicles is immense. Sensors, cameras, compute, AI, remote assistance
operators, fleet managers. Experts estimate that each
self-driving test vehicle could cost $400,000 alone. And that’s just taking into
account the sensors and compute. Is all of that really worth it? Waymo seems to think so. I mean, human beings are terrible drivers. The vast majority of vehicle
crashes, like over 90% are because of mistakes
made by human drivers. Self-driving cars could be safer, but we really just don’t know yet. There just aren’t enough
of them on the road to really prove that out. So we’ll have to wait, until they bust out beyond this tiny section
of suburban Arizona and to a much larger and more dangerous and more complex world before we know whether self-driving cars are
really worth all this effort. If you’d rather see a
video about electric cars, we just did a drive with
Porsche’s new all electric Taycan outside of L.A., in the mountains. It was a gorgeous video. I highly recommend you check
it out at youtube.com/theverge.