Recently, Waymo began inviting members of its Early Rider program in Phoenix to take trips in its fully driverless minivans. These are normal people who signed up back in 2017 to serve as guinea pigs for the Google spinoff’s experiments in self-driving transportation. And, as you can see in this new video released Tuesday, the experience is equal parts thrilling and boring.
In the video, the passengers giggle nervously at the sight of an empty driver’s seat, wondering aloud whether passersby are also slightly freaked out, and making casual references to “the future.” Then, very quickly, as is common among most ride-hailing passengers, they start to zone out. They look at their phones, they yawn, and one even falls asleep. When they reach their destination, they thank not the driver but the car.
To be sure, a Waymo employee and a camera operator were in the vehicles during the rides, albeit not in the driver’s seat. Waymo plans to keep a staffer in the car for the initial phase. I rode in one of Waymo’s driverless minivans (on a closed test track, not on a public road), so I can attest to the fact that the thrill wears off quickly after you see how cautiously the vehicle handles itself. There is something unsettling about riding in a car without a human behind the steering wheel, but your brain quickly adapts to the experience.
Still, numerous surveys suggest that self-driving cars, despite their potential to save lives, scare the crap out of most people. The notion of putting your life in the hands of a driverless vehicle is unnerving, given that the technology remains mostly elusive. Public education, like the advertisements and videos released by Waymo in recent months, will be crucial in helping people overcome their initial fears.
As such, Waymo’s Early Riders will no doubt be featured front-and-center in the company’s public relations campaign. To date, none of the members of the program have been interviewed or publicly identified. (Waymo has them under strict nondisclosure agreements.) But when the time comes to expand the program to the wider public, Waymo is likely to lean heavily on testimonies from these everyday people.
Waymo released this video in conjunction with a public appearance by its CEO John Krafcik at SXSW in Austin, where he is expected to tout some of his company’s recent advances. These include the state of Arizona granting Waymo a permit to operate a driverless ride-hailing business, and the completion of 5 million miles of testing on public roads. Krafcik is also likely to mention Waymo’s recent deal with Fiat-Chrysler to dramatically expand its fleet of autonomous vehicles.
Waymo currently has 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans in its fleet, some of which are used in its Early Rider program in Arizona. The first 100 were delivered when the partnership was announced in May 2016, and an additional 500 were delivered in 2017. Waymo also has test vehicles operating on public roads in San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington state, and Michigan.