Phoenix – “A ghost is driving.”
That’s what my 5-year-old daughter said when I recently made her facetime here in the back seat of a Wemo autonomous car in the suburbs.
Passers-by and pedestrians had similar reactions. They gestured, stared and even gasped when they noticed there was no one in the driver’s seat.
It will take a lot more experience like me to enter the era of driverless cars. Although the commercialization of autonomous vehicles was much more difficult than many thought a few years ago, the benefits of riders and companies are real based on my recent experience.
The difficult task of getting the driver out of the car can lead to safer roads, increase profit margins for companies and create a better overall experience for riders. But the rollout has to be done carefully and safely. Companies need to make the experience of driving more people mysterious.
During my trip to Phoenix, the steering wheel of the modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan was moved with each turn and lane change, as the car used a suite of cameras, radar and sensors such as a leader to “see” its surroundings.
The car also displays what it sees – such as other cars, buildings and pedestrians – on the rear screen of the car. The screens help riders to know what the car is sensing, which can make them feel more comfortable with what is happening.
WeMo One self-driving vehicles display what they “see” (other cars, stoplights, buildings, pedestrians, etc.) on the rear screen of the vehicle.
Michael Wayland / CNBC
I’ve had a handful of highly automated and self-propelled vehicles, but they’ve all included backup safety drivers behind the wheel. This is not the case with Weimo’s fleet of self-propelled vehicles in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
While some Waymo vehicles have safety drivers during tests and during adverse weather, the other two, such as the two I spent more than an hour with, had no one but me.
The real possibility
For me, the experience was releasing. It highlights the true potential of autonomous vehicles, which some believe will be a multi-trillion-dollar industry.
Shortly after welcoming my first car (as you would with an Uber or a lift) via the WeMo One app, I was at ease with my ghost driver. In fact, I liked it even after being on a plane for four hours and boarding with two human drivers at the beginning of the day.
Being alone without a driver gives me a little peace of mind. It enabled me to be productive without being distracted or anxious about being an annoying or reckless passenger. I did facetime, tweeted, made calls and changed destinations without any annoyance. I wrote most of this article even while in the second van.
Companies capable of doing such things have been promising to provide self-propelled vehicles for years. This saves a lot of money by increasing safety and getting the driver out of the car – the most expensive cost for such companies.
But the reality is that people are unpredictable, and the amount of skill it takes to drive a car, whether in school or in the construction sector, is worth less. It has taken much longer than we expected to get to where we are today, which is not too far away. Many companies are conducting personal tests, but the large fleet of autonomous vehicles promised by companies such as Uber, Lift and General Motors is not yet close to fruition.
Wemo, a division of Alphabet, became the first company to offer such a fleet to the public by the end of 2020. Its service area is limited to about 50 square miles, but it shows the potential of these technologies. The company says it has offered several thousand rides since its public launch in October 2020.
Wemo is not alone. There are others like Amazon-backed Jukes, Cruise and Argo AI that are testing and even operating in limited areas across the country. However, they are not renting and working in a big and meaningful way like Wemo for public use. Cruz, GM’s majority-owned subsidiary, is close to doing it at night in San Francisco.
Mostly smooth, but some problems
Overall, the two Wemo cars I drove were as safe as any of the ride-hauling drivers I had, including one that I had to drive to the service area for a self-propelled vehicle. They easily handle the surrounding speed bumps, braking and acceleration. After the innovation stopped, I was relieved to see how the vehicles were handling most of the situation.
But the rides were not flawless. Of course, not human drivers, but one of the promises of self-propelled vehicles is to reduce, even eliminate, accidents. So, don’t cut it as safe as human driver.
As shown on the inside screen of a Wemo One self-driving car, a busy turn can go through a neighborhood instead of going straight and turning left.
Michael Wayland / CNBC
Route selection was also weird. Vehicles sometimes seem to prefer to pass through a nearby road instead of taking a left-handed turn or using a middle turn (see picture above). Waymo says vehicles may choose a different route to avoid traffic.
There were also examples of hesitant, almost stiff, brake and steering movements. At one point, the first car I was in also decided to overturn before stopping in the middle of a crosswalk. (My colleague Jennifer Elias felt some similar sniffs associated with Fire Lane.)
Vehicle healing is also different from a traditional taxi or ride-hailing service. You need to be precise where the pickup location for the car will be.
In a crowded Walmart parking lot, I saw myself running behind the car, trying to get to the side of the road and out of the lane. It was annoying but I got the same level of frustration when I tried to find my Uber driver at the airport.
Waymo vehicles were consistent with the cost of ride-hauling services. In total, I spent $ 49.20 on two trips that totaled 26.5 miles and took 1 hour and 17 minutes. Cost per mile averages 1.86 per mile.
This compares favorably with my man-powered ride-hailing trip to an autonomous taxi and from which the average is $ 1.62 per mile, excluding tips, which brings in up to $ 1.88 per mile.
My Wemo trip includes moving from one Walmart to another Walmart, then stopping for lunch before healing my second vehicle to take me to the post office, and then a target near the northern border where the vehicle can move.
As I wrote about such a vehicle, I was amazed by the delivery and the possibility of self-propelled vehicles for consumers. Even in limited operations like Waymo, the promise of these technologies is real, but so are the technical challenges, regulatory barriers, and the unpredictability of human drivers.
Waymo and others need to get more “seat butts” – an old proverb for car dealers to sell cars – to take the experience of autonomous vehicles. This is the only way, people with the younger generation will not believe that ghosts are driving.
Correction: Waymo car costs গড়ে 1.86 per mile on average. An earlier version mistyped the image.