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What it’s like to take a ride in Waymo’s self-driving car

The self-driving car company is preparing drivers for the transition to being passengers.

On Monday, I found myself in the back seat of a Chrysler Pacifica driving down the road with no driver at the helm. The steering wheel turned by itself, steering left and right around corners and past cyclists. I wasn’t totally alone, there was another journalist and a representative from Waymo, the Google-owned company providing the demo. But there was no driver to talk to, to check in with for reassurance that this car was going to transport us safely.

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What Waymo does have is lots of stats, noting that its cars are driving 10,000 miles a day in the real world, 10 million miles a day in digital simulations. Plus it’s run 20,000 structured tests, or complex driving scenarios. And its technology has redundancies in place to keep the rider safe in case the steering, braking, computing, or power fail.

But when you’re in a car with no driver, you’re not thinking about stats. That’s why Waymo had to design an interface to put riders at ease. On the back of the two front seats are screens showing us what the car was seeing: other cars on the road, bicyclists, stop signs, our car’s path. It let me know that it knew what I knew. To reinforce the point, every so often the screen would flash a full picture of the environment surrounding the car–the trees, the buildings–an indication that it sees what I see. In actuality, Waymo representatives say, it can see much more. The long-range lasers can detect objects up to 300 meters away. The key to making riders comfortable is to not show them too much, say those who have worked on the interface. 

Ryan Powell, head of design and user experience at Waymo, explains that he and his team created a “visual design language to tell users what information the computers are analyzing” by curating images. On its black screens, Waymo only shows the components of the environment that help the rider understand why the car is slowing or turning around or making whatever decision its making. This is important. For many, getting into one of Waymo’s self-driving cars could be the first time they’ve ever interacted with such technology. Their first experience–and how comfortable they’re made to feel–could dictate whether or not they ever get into another self-driving car again.

In addition to the screen, Waymo also has a center console in the middle of the car ceiling, where there would normally be a light. It’s a black bar with four buttons: one to call out for help, one to lock or unlock the cars doors, one to pull over, and one to start the ride. These controls are important features for riders to make them feel like they still have agency inside a computer-operated vehicle. In fact, it is these small details that will ultimately win over riders when Waymo eventually launches its cars commercially. Officials at Waymo declined to say when this technology will come to the public.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company who covers gig economy platforms, contract workers, and the future of jobs.

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