The way we relate to autonomous vehicles—as drivers, passengers, and as humans—will change the way we think about transportation. As we evolve to a system in which technology takes the wheel, our relationship to vehicles—and trust of those vehicles—will evolve. Waymo, the self-driving technology company that was spun off from Google in 2016, is determined to humanize the entire experience.
“Our design goal is to establish trust with our riders,” says Ryan Powell, Waymo’s head of user experience research and design. “We want people to feel comfortable and confident every step of the ride.”
The question of trust is one that groups like the National Safety Council, one of Waymo’s Let’s Talk Self-Driving partners, is particularly interested in. According to Alex Epstein, the organization’s former director of transportation safety, trust goes hand in hand with safety. “Where you stand on trust depends on where you sit,” he says. “If you’re sitting in an [autonomous] vehicle, it’s a different level of trust than if you’re in a vehicle next to [that one], and another level of trust if you’re a vulnerable road user encountering that vehicle. I don’t think people will automatically trust [self-driving vehicles] just by declaring that they’re safe—it has to be demonstrated.”
Waymo is working on just that near Phoenix, where the company has hundreds of autonomous cars on the road. These Chrysler Pacifica minivans are equipped with Waymo’s technology, called the Waymo Driver; riders can hail them through the Waymo One app. Waymo’s fleet also includes Jaguar’s all-electric I-PACE SUVs, which are currently testing across Phoenix and in the Bay Area and will eventually be rolled out into Waymo One. The service is available only in the Phoenix area right now, though the company hopes to make the service available in other cities.
Tiffany Elle has been a Waymo One rider since 2018. She lives and works in Chandler, Arizona, where Waymo first deployed the Waymo One service. Elle works in technology and so was curious about the vehicles. She also has low vision and worries about being unable to drive someday.
“One of the factors for participating in the program is that there could come a time in my life when I have to restrict my driving,” Elle says. “This technology allows people in my position, senior citizens, and other people with disabilities, an opportunity to be completely independent and not have to explain ourselves to a [ride-share] driver or a caregiver. It really would provide a sense of independence.”
Elle says that she’s more patient with autonomous vehicles because she understands that the Waymo vehicles prioritize safety. “The more you learn about it, the less scared you are of adopting the technology,” she says. “I’ve brought in some skeptics who have left the experience being very excited and comfortable with it. You can’t get mad at something that’s following all the laws of the road.”
GOOD ROAD CITIZENS
The success of autonomous vehicles is largely dependent on gaining trust from other drivers and road users, too, a key focus for Powell and his team. He points out that following the initial rollout, people in Chandler became accustomed to Waymo’s self-driving cars and developed an understanding of how they react and behave in various situations. “Our technology navigates space a little differently in certain scenarios than a human driver would,” he says. “We’re trying to help people understand what the car can see, what the car’s intent is, and then how we communicate those things to our riders, fellow drivers, and pedestrians.”
Epstein likens autonomous vehicles to new teenage drivers. Just as you wouldn’t let a teen start out driving on snowy or icy roads right away, AVs—or self-driving test platforms, as he calls them—need to show that they are safe in all kinds of environments, learn from their actions, and grow in their ability and judgment in order to earn trust.
The Waymo Driver has logged more than 20 million miles on public roads, which is the equivalent of 700-plus years of human driving experience, so it’s well past its teenage years. Still, it’s early days for the industry as a whole, and fully autonomous vehicles won’t be everywhere tomorrow. In the meantime, Powell and his team continue to work towards training their Waymo Driver to become an even better driver—and to promote better citizenship among other road users.
“I think that [this technology] will have a positive effect on society,” he says. “The roads will likely be a calmer, friendlier version of what we have today, because you have a self-driving vehicle that’s setting a really good example for what driving should be about. And I wonder if, collectively, that will raise the bar for humans to be better road citizens.”