We finally talked to an actual Waymo passenger—here’s what he told us

By Timothy B. Lee

A white car with a company logo on its door.
Enlarge / Waymo signage is displayed on the open door of a Chrysler Pacifica autonomous vehicle in Chandler, Arizona, on Monday, July 30, 2018.

For the last 18 months, Waymo vehicles have been ferrying passengers around the southeast corner of the Phoenix metropolitan area. The company has tightly controlled information about the project by contractually prohibiting passengers from discussing the experience.

That was supposed to change last week when Waymo officially launched its commercial service, Waymo One. The company said it would lift its nondisclosure requirement for at least some passengers, allowing them to talk to the press about what it's like to be an ordinary passenger in a Waymo car.

For the last week, reporters like me have been scouring the Internet to find Waymo One customers we can talk to—and coming up empty. Waymo One may have officially launched, but the program was still limited to people who were previously part of Waymo's earlier testing program. And so far none of these people had come forward to talk about the experience publicly.

Then on Wednesday morning, a Phoenix-area technologist and entrepreneur named Michael Richardson told me that he'd been released from his NDA. He was willing to talk about his experience as a Waymo customer.

"I'm impressed by what the vehicle can do and how well it gets around," Richardson told me in a Wednesday phone interview. "It's very, very impressive."

Still, he said, the service had significant limitations—including a limited coverage map and too few drop-off locations. Due in part to those limitations, Richardson has only taken four Waymo rides—two round trips—in the three months he's been part of Waymo's program.

All of his rides had safety drivers, and he said he saw them take control of the vehicle at least once over the course of those four rides. He also said that Waymo vehicles sometimes seem to take less-direct routes to avoid tricky situations like left turns or freeway driving.

“Little practical application”—for now

Richardson gained access to the Waymo's early rider program in mid-September, and he has taken a total of two round trips under the program: one on September 28 and the other on October 6. Since then, he says, he hasn't used the service at all. This means he hasn't actually used the service since last week's official launch of Waymo One (more about this later).

"It actually has very little practical application for us," he said. "I can't go to Phoenix really. I can't go see any of my family in the East Valley."

That's partly because Richardson lives near the eastern edge of Waymo's coverage area. He can take a Waymo to locations west of his home, but going east isn't an option.

Richardson sent us a copy of the coverage map as it was displayed on his phone on Wednesday. We've reproduced the approximate map here:

Waymo's approximate coverage map, as shown by the Waymo app to Michael Richardson on December 12, 2018.
Enlarge / Waymo's approximate coverage map, as shown by the Waymo app to Michael Richardson on December 12, 2018.

As far as we know, this is the first time Waymo's coverage map has been publicly disclosed. It appears to be roughly 80 square miles. Waymo says that its coverage area at launch is between 80 and 100 square miles.

Richardson has found Waymo's prices to be relatively expensive. Richardson said that he recently considered taking a Waymo ride that would have cost $14. "Lyft cost a dollar less for the same trip," he said. "Uber was two dollars less."

Waymo says people shouldn't read too much into this. "Early Rider pricing is experimental, intended solely to solicit feedback from the test program, and does not necessarily reflect the pricing for our public service," a spokeswoman said by email.

That makes sense. Waymo safety drivers undoubtedly earn more than ordinary Uber or Lyft drivers, which means that Waymo will inevitably lose money if it tries to match Uber and Lyft's prices (after all, Uber and Lyft are still losing money themselves). Waymo's longer-term goal, however, is to dispense with safety drivers, at which point the company may be able to cut its fares significantly and still make a profit.

Another downside to Waymo's service, Richardson said, is the restrictions Waymo places on pickup and drop-off locations. An Uber or Lyft driver will generally stop wherever the customer asks them, whether or not it's technically legal or safe to do so. Waymo's app is more restrictive.

Limitations

Richardson says he wanted to go to a coworking space in downtown Chandler. "But I couldn't get within a block of it," Richardson told me. The app limits drop-offs to locations Waymo considers safe and legal, and in certain areas these spots can be few and far between.

Richardson said that pickup times were comparable to what you'd see with conventional ride-hailing service. His quickest pickup time was about five minutes, while one ride took close to 20 minutes. Those sound like long waits to me as a resident of Washington, DC, but Richardson said that they're typical for ride-hailing services in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs.

Because this is a suburban area, almost everyone—including Richardson—already has a private car in the driveway. So there just aren't that many situations where it makes sense for someone like Richardson to take a Waymo rather than driving his own car.

Of course, all of this can and probably will change in the next few years. If all goes well, Waymo will be able to expand its coverage map and increase the density of drop-off locations. And if Waymo ultimately succeeds in offering fully driverless rides, that could allow for dramatic price cuts. At that point, Waymo One could become a much more compelling product for customers like Richardson.

Safety drivers behind the wheel

Richardson said he was generally impressed with the Waymo vehicle's driving style, and he never saw any situations where the Waymo car seemed to be behaving dangerously. He initially told me that he saw the safety drivers grabbing the wheel on multiple occasions over the course of his four Waymo rides. But Waymo says their records show that this actually happened only once during the four rides. In a follow-up email, Richardson conceded that he might have misremembered.

Richardson said the incident he remembers most vividly occurred when Waymo was traveling behind a bus. Just after an intersection, the road temporarily widened to give buses room to stop at a bus stop without blocking the flow of traffic. The bus in front of Richardson's Waymo pulled off to the right at the bus stop, leaving the road in front of the Waymo vehicle clear. But the Waymo stopped—perhaps expecting the bus to pull back out in front of the Waymo vehicle at any moment. After about three seconds, Richardson says, the safety driver took over control and steered the Waymo past the bus.

Richardson also said Waymo cars sometimes seemed to plan routes that allowed them to avoid tricky situations like unprotected left turns or freeway driving.

"I've watched them come out of parking lots and go right to go a long way around the block to avoid a left turn," he said.

In a statement, Waymo stressed that Waymo vehicles do make left turns on a regular basis.

"Our vehicles complete unprotected left turns in autonomous mode regularly," a spokeswoman told us by email. "However, we've always said that unprotected lefts on high-speed roads are amongst the most difficult driving maneuvers. As our technology is new, we are going to be cautious because safety is our highest priority."

One of Richardson's Waymo rides took him from a location near downtown Chandler to an AMC movie theater about eight miles to the east. Most people would take the 202 freeway for this route, but Richardson says his Waymo took Chandler Blvd. instead—a route that takes an extra five minutes, according to Google Maps.

"We take several variables into account in our routing algorithms, including time and traffic," a Waymo spokeswoman wrote by email.

At the same time, Richardson said he was sometimes impressed by the situations the Waymo vehicles could navigate.

"I've seen it navigate in parking lots," he said. "Parking lots are incredibly difficult."

We’re still looking for a Waymo One customer

Richardson was surprised when I told him that he was the first Waymo early rider I'd ever spoken to. And as it turned out, this wasn't a coincidence. Richardson thought that Waymo had told him earlier that day that he was free from his nondisclosure agreement. But that turned out to be a misunderstanding.

In fact, Richardson had not yet switched to the Waymo One program. He was still in the early rider program, and his non-disclosure agreement still applied. And even after a customer switches to Waymo One, Waymo isn't planning to let early riders talk about their earlier experiences in the program. They'll only be able to talk about rides they take after making the switch.

So after I emailed Waymo for comment about Richardson's observations, Waymo called Richardson. Richardson then emailed to ask me not to publish this story. I contacted Waymo, telling them that I intended to respect Richardson's request. But I also said I might write a different story instead—one focused on the fact that I couldn't find any Waymo One customers to talk to.

A Waymo spokeswoman then called me and said that, in the interest of transparency, the company would allow me to publish my story. She promised me that Richardson wouldn't get into legal trouble as a result. With that promise in hand, Richardson gave his approval for me to write about our conversation.

This means that, more than a week after Waymo One's official launch, I still haven't found any Waymo One customers willing and able to talk about their experience. Theoretically, such people exist, and I would love to talk to some of them. So if you're a Waymo One customer—or you know someone who is—please encourage them to

drop me a line

.