Associate editor Jessica Swarner riding in a Waymo with a "ghost" driver (Courier Newsroom illustration/Desirée Tapia)
Associate editor Jessica Swarner riding in a Waymo with a "ghost" driver (Courier Newsroom illustration/Desirée Tapia)

It felt like riding with a ghost in the driver’s seat, or in an oddly slow runaway car.

It’s official—those funny-looking Waymo cars we’ve seen driving around the Valley for years are now taking the public for rides, without a safety driver sitting up front.

Last month, I decided to see what it was like to ride alone in a robot car. 

I downloaded the Waymo One app and booked a ride from my co-working space to Green New American Vegetarian for lunch. The app noted I would be the only person in the car, which felt exciting but a little disconcerting. 

The service operates in two regions in the Valley: a select area of downtown Phoenix and a bigger section of the East Valley.

Starting the Ride

After booking the ride, I had to walk a short distance to a designated pick-up spot. 

After waiting a few minutes, the Jaguar I-PACE vehicle turned the corner to meet me. It was eery—being all-electric, the vehicle is silent, and it was hard for my brain to process a car pulling up with no one in it

Once the car stopped I tried opening the door, but there was no handle to pull. After a couple of tugs, I realized there was a button on the app for unlocking the car. Once I pressed it, a handle popped out of the door, and I could get inside. 

I sat down, and the car immediately began talking to me, welcoming me by name and going over some safety rules. No passengers are allowed to ride in the front seats, and there was a sign on the steering wheel asking people not to touch it or the gas pedal. 

There was a console between the front seats facing me, where I pressed a button to begin the ride once I was settled in. The console also included controls for temperature and music. If you download the Google Assistant app, you can ask it to play music through the car, although the library seems limited—I asked it to play Willow, and it didn’t play anything by her, just artists similar to her. 

I watched the ride’s progress both on the middle console and on the console at the front of the car, where other cars and humans show up as colored shapes. It was comforting to watch the car recognize the objects around it and know it was aware of how close they were, especially when people were walking close to the road. 

Driving With No Driver

The ride was strange. The car drove a little slower than the average driver and felt more cautious. It was almost like I could feel the car taking in the information around it and thinking before deciding to make a turn or pull out. It was nice not having any anxiety over a driver being distracted and not paying full attention to the road. 

As safe as it felt, I was still in shock seeing the steering wheel and the car turn by itself. It felt like riding with a ghost in the driver’s seat, or in an oddly slow runway car. I video-called my sister during the ride so I could show someone else this weird phenomenon in real-time. 

The ride, which was about 2 miles and 10 minutes long, cost about $7. I compared the price against Lyft, which had a cheaper “wait & save” rate, but that’s not including their fuel surcharge and tip.

A Little Wonkiness

The car got me to the restaurant and made a tight turn into a small parking lot, pulling to the side so I could end the ride and get out. After lunch, I called a Waymo car again to get back to my co-working space. The parking lot I had been dropped off in came up on the app as a pick-up location, so I selected it. 

While watching the ride’s progress in the app, I noticed that the time listed until the car arrived kept resetting itself. It’d start around 4-5 minutes, count down, and then restart right when the car should have arrived. 

I walked out to the front of the restaurant to investigate and realized what was happening: the car approached the same turn it made earlier, turned on its turn signal, slowed down, and paused for a moment, but for whatever reason it then decided against turning and continued straight, passing the restaurant. It would then turn right at the next street and circle the block, coming back to the restaurant and passing it again.

This happened three or four times before I realized it was stuck in a potentially endless loop. I changed the pickup location to another nearby parking lot, and this time the car had no issue. Again—it is so strange to be standing in a parking lot and have this silent, empty car approach you right where you’re standing. 

I got in and had an uneventful ride back to the same street where the car had originally picked me up. 

Try It Yourself? 

Overall, using Waymo for the ride was super easy. The app lets you know if you’re inside the service location or not, and how close you are to a spot where you can be picked up. There were enough cars available that it only took about 5-10 minutes for one to come get me. 

As wrong as it felt for the car to not have a driver, it felt nice not having to make small talk and to feel like I could fully relax. I could make a phone call, or sing along to music in (relative) privacy. The quiet was a nice respite between two destinations full of chatter. 

I’m sure the feeling of awe will wear off over time, but it’s definitely worth trying out if you’re in the area. Anyone can download the app to book a ride, and the service operates 24/7. 

Have you tried riding in a self-driving car yet? Do you see yourself using this service? Let us know at copper@couriernewsroom.com

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