We followed Waymo self-driving cars for 170 miles while they tested their cars and this is what we saw. Arizona Republic
Challenging lane changes, an accident avoided and police questioning reporters all were part of the three days of observing Waymo vans
A white Waymo minivan — sensors spinning on the sides, a big black bulb on the roof — crept slowly toward a bad accident in a Chandler intersection in mid-October, almost like the robot car was curious about this traffic scenario and wanted a closer look.
Emergency crews directed the afternoon traffic around the wrecked cars and fire engines at McQueen and Pecos roads in the Phoenix suburb.
The self-driving Waymo awkwardly, slowly, rolled toward the scene, even as dozens of other vehicles merged into the turn lanes far sooner.
A human driver in this situation might try to make eye contact with the drivers already in the crowded turn lane, or even wave, to try to cut in.
But drivers around a Waymo's van never know if the car is driving itself, or if the test driver behind the wheel has control as they maneuver through school zones, shopping centers and freeways across the southeast Phoenix metro area, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Arizona Republic had followed Waymo van No. 8146 for 19 miles that day in Chandler to better understand what these vehicles were doing on the public roads, and how well they are doing it.
Over three days, The Republic observed dozens of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minvans driving around the Waymo garage southeast of Interstate 10 and Pecos Road. A reporter and photographer followed several of them through multiple cities for more than 170 miles, and documented the good — and sometimes odd — behavior we saw.
Although the vans' ability to detect potential collisions and cars encroaching on their lanes seems beneficial, their strict adherence to the law and extreme caution in maneuvers such as lane changes can frustrate other drivers.
Waymo, a division of Mountain View, Calif.-based Alphabet Inc. and formerly known as the Google Self Driving Car Project, is developing a ride service that company officials have said could go global.
Before that happens, it is testing whether its technology can avoid hurting or killing people on roads in Arizona.
Ride service Uber already failed that test when one of its self-driving tests killed an Arizona pedestrian in March. The accident was caused by a combination of the not-yet-perfected autonomous system and human driver interacting, something one expert says might be the most dangerous aspect of Waymo's tests.
Although Waymo's CEO said his company's vans would have avoided the Uber accident, the vehicles remain under the combined control of the robot and human.
Back at the October accident scene, the Waymo eventually got to the front of the line of cars merging to avoid the crash. It nudged left as though it was going to cut into the line of cars in the adjacent lane, then suddenly cut right into the shorter line of cars on that side.
Chandler drivers are used to this sort of robotic decision-making from the easily identifiable Waymos, dozens of which have been testing in the area since April 2016.
Waymo officials declined to explain what van No. 8146 was doing that day at the accident scene, and who was in control.
Waymo has disclosed little about the tests, even as autonomous vans have racked up 10 million miles on the roads in multiple states.
Company officials usually only explain the cars' behavior when they are involved in an accident, and in those instances, they usually use the continuous video, radar and other data collected by the vans to proclaim the effectiveness and safety of their technology.
But you can learn a lot about the vans by observing their maneuvers on public roads.
What Waymo says versus what we saw
Waymo has explained some of the vans' behavior during two brief demonstrations since August, though the company still declines to answer several questions, including basic things like how many vans it has on Arizona roads.
Seventy-three vehicles are registered to the company in the state, though it could have more vehicles driving here that are registered elsewhere.
The cars can only run autonomously in a special "geofenced" area where Waymo has mapped streets, traffic signals, driveways and other details necessary to navigate.
Waymo will not disclose the precise boundaries of that area, or where it is using the cars to map new terrain and expand. The company says only that the cars run through parts of Chandler, Mesa, Tempe and the southernmost portion of Phoenix in Ahwatukee. We observed the vehicles in all of those places.
Sometimes the vans go a short distance from the Chandler garage and putt around neighborhoods, stopping every so often in front of homes, or Petco, or the QT gas station.
Other times, they drive several miles away through multiple cities, entering and exiting freeways frequently, as though they are testing the car's merging technique. One van drove almost all the way to the Sun Lakes community, about 13 miles southeast of the Waymo garage.
Waymo says more than 20,000 people applied for the Early Rider program that allows them to use the vehicles for rides, some free and some paid. More than 400 were accepted, said the company, which has allowed the media to speak with a few of those people. In following the cars, though, we never observed a vehicle shuttling passengers.
Company officials bragged a year ago that some of the cars in Arizona had operated without a safety driver behind the wheel. We never saw a vehicle without a driver.
The vans don't appear to run autonomously for the entirety of their trips, either. Sometimes the test cars leave the garage while manually operated, which is apparent with the drivers' hands turning the wheel. Touching the wheel causes the vans to pass control to the driver.
Other times, the steering wheel spins on its own.
Hesitancy changing lanes
The maneuver that most reveals robotic decision making from the cars seems to be lane changes, which are so difficult that the vans sometimes miss their turns because they can't move over in time.
In multiple instances, we saw Waymo vans use their turn signals to try a lane change, only to turn it off if there was not enough room to move over.
Sometimes it took multiple attempts for the vehicle to successfully change lanes.
And turning the indicator off and on multiple times appeared to confuse drivers around the vans. One van took 1 minute and 23 seconds, and multiple attempts, before changing lanes in moderate, flowing traffic.
One participant in the company's Early Rider program, 22-year-old Reid Beer of Mesa, said that he has been in vehicles that missed their turn because they were not able to move over.
"There have been times it has missed an exit on the highway because it was being too cautious," said Beer, who said he uses the service multiple times a week to go out and run errands.
Beer is one of the few people participating in the program that Waymo has allowed to speak with the media.
Company officials have said they are constantly improving the vehicles' behavior to make them more predictable to other drivers.
"That's something we are continuing to tune," said Dan Chu, Waymo's head of product.
Programming the vehicles to be as assertive as a human driver is something Waymo has been addressing for months. CEO John Krafcik spoke about the issue in March at an industry show.
"We understand there are times when you have to provide a certain social posture in driving to signal your intentions," he said. "We as humans often encounter this at four-way stops, where you move your car forward just a little bit so the folks around you understand it is your intention to go next. Our cars can do this."
Then he joked that the vehicles needed different attitudes in different markets.
"We have a special Danny DeVito programming algorithm for New York," he said.
Waymo van avoids a near hit
On some occasions, the Waymo vehicles' ability to detect oncoming hazards seems apparent.
On a late November afternoon, we saw a van turn left from Federal Street onto Ray Road in Chandler.
The Waymo had the green light, but stopped abruptly before entering the intersection. A half-second later, a green Honda Element heading eastbound skidded to a stop in the intersection. It had run the light. The vehicles did not collide.
Waymo officials declined to say whether van No. 8115 was running autonomously or manually in this event.
On another occasion in mid-October, a different Waymo van was merging onto U.S. 60 when it was tailgated by an aggressive car.
The car passed the Waymo on the left as it entered the freeway. Meanwhile, the Waymo was moving into the left lane and had its left indicator light flashing.
The Waymo was about halfway or more into the left lane, but retreated to avoid the aggressive driver.
Even with the other car past it, the Waymo remained in the right lane and took the next exit about a quarter mile away, rather than merging onto U.S. 60.
Waymo declined to say whether the vehicle was operating autonomously during this event.
Security keeps eye on garage
Although the operations can be observed from the public sidewalk, Waymo officials seem apprehensive about who is watching.
In the middle of the day, dozens of the cars come and go from the Waymo garage, turning onto Fairview Street and then 56th Street. Waymo says the operations run around the clock.
We observed dozens of vans along this stretch, some with a single driver and others with multiple Waymo employees inside.
While standing near the Waymo garage for approximately three minutes, a security guard from Allied Signal approached and asked who we were and what we were doing.
He was smoking a cigarette and complained that he did not leave Chicago for cold weather like Arizona was experiencing that day. He then appeared to send a text message.
A moment later, a young man riding a skateboard in a T-shirt and shorts came out of the Waymo garage and approached the security guard. They spoke, and the young man appeared to send a text message before riding his skateboard back to the garage.
Moments later, as we left, the public relations agency representing Waymo in Arizona called to ask what we were doing. After a brief conversation, we pulled away, and the security guard appeared to take photos or video of our car and license plate.
Waymo faces aggression
Following the encounter with the security guard, we learned why Waymo might be cautious with the public: The company's vans and drivers have been threatened, had rocks thrown at them, a tire slashed, and other vehicles have intentionally swerved into their lanes, Chandler police said.
We learned of these incidents when Waymo called the police on us.
After following a Waymo with two people inside for 31 minutes and 10.9 miles in late November, the Waymo pulled up to the Chandler Police Department Desert Breeze Substation.
Two police officers rushed toward our vehicle, shouting for us to stop. An unmarked, silver police truck pulled out of the substation and stopped in front of us.
The officers explained that Waymo had called out of concern their driver was being harassed, and that multiple Waymo drivers have experienced harassment and aggressive driving.
We told the officers we were with the media. They asked us to be careful and let us on our way. The Waymo vehicle remained in the parking lot of the substation.
A challenging left turn
Making a left turn at the intersection at 56th and Fairview is challenging for any driver because the cross traffic doesn't stop and it's difficult to see oncoming cars.
A technology website reported in August that Waymo vehicles were unable to make this left turn in a timely manner with vehicles approaching from both directions.
The article relied on observations of people who drive frequently in the area and have been stuck behind the vans, even though it is nearly impossible to determine from behind whether a Waymo is in manual or autonomous mode.
Watching from the corner, we observed several Waymo vans and several other cars make the difficult left turn.
Although some Waymo vehicles took more than 20 seconds to make this turn, every one of them appeared to be operated manually, based on the drivers' hands moving the wheel. It's possible Waymo asks drivers to tackle the left manually to prevent backups during busy times of day, which could frustrate other businesses in the business park.
During a demonstration of their technology in August, a Waymo van in autonomous mode safely made four left turns on busy streets, two of them ahead of oncoming semitrucks.
During another demonstration in November, the vehicle safely made an unprotected left onto four-lane-wide Alma School Road in late-afternoon traffic.
We also observed several non-Waymo cars making this left turn and couldn't discern a difference in the amount of time it took a human driver to negotiate this left from the Waymo vehicles.
It's also worth noting that on two occasions we tried to follow Waymos through this left turn and lost them because it took us so long to make the turn after them.
Waymo told The Arizona Republic the company has improved at that intersection.
"Waymo was founded on a mission to make our roads safer, and that's why we built a cautious and defensive driver," a company representative said by email.
"The way to responsibly deploy our fully driverless technology is to robustly test and validate in a geo-fenced territory that grows over time. Anything less than that undermines safety and the promise of this technology."
Waymo won't offer a public ride service, but will charge pre-approved riders for its autonomous vans through a program called Waymo One. Arizona Republic
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/money/business/tech/2018/12/05/phoenix-waymo-vans-how-self-driving-cars-operate-roads/2082664002/