Home » I Rode In An Autonomous Car On Public Roads. It Might be The Greatest Transportation Experience On Earth

I Rode In An Autonomous Car On Public Roads. It Might be The Greatest Transportation Experience On Earth

Waymo Ts Dt (1)

I had the chance to ride in a Waymo self-driving car (yes, an actual self-driving car on public roads) for a week, and I’m convinced that, as flawed as the whole concept is for many reasons: It is the best transportation experience there is on earth, especially for non-enthusiasts. Here’s why.

“Waymo is going on tour across Los Angeles. Starting in October, Waymo is giving Angelenos a 1 week early access ticket to try our fully autonomous ride-hailing service, Waymo One, for FREE in a neighborhood near you,” Waymo announced earlier this year.  “We’ll be popping up in local spots throughout LA to share the magic of Waymo. At pop ups, we’ll be handing out early access tickets to ride (while supplies last) in addition to special tour merch,” Waymo continued in its announcement.

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My girlfriend, who’s surprisingly in-the-know when it comes to…pretty much everything in LA, signed us up, and before you know it I was at a popup staring at a Jaguar I-Pace electric SUV covered in cameras and LIDAR sensors:

At the popup event, I received not just a free T-Shirt, but also a ticket that included the access code I needed in order to get one week of  free self-driving goodness on the Waymo app.


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The app itself works just like Uber. With the access code inserted, I just plugged in my destination and starting point, hit “request car” and boom: I got an expected time of Waymo arrival:

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There were a few instances where arrival time was over 30 minutes, but that’s understandable. I bet each of these sensor-riddled Jaguars cost over a quarter of a million dollars to develop (I pulled that figure out of my arse), so there can only be so many. For the most part, though, the Waymos showed up in a couple of minutes.

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They even featured my rotating initials on the roof-mounted display. My camera couldn’t pick up on the initials, presumably because Waymo is using some kind of pulse width modulation for those LEDs, and the camera frame-rate isn’t liking it. But you’ll have to trust me: It says DT right up top, there:

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To get in, I had to hit an “unlock” button on the app, then the door handles presented themselves and I jumped in:

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I was greeted with this screen on the back of the center console. “Good afternoon, David,” it reads, prompting me to click the “start ride” button.


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I hit the button and we were off! I had USB-C chargers right there, bluetooth was available for use from the rear bench (no touching of that front infotainment screen necessary), and I could see what the car was seeing via the small screen just ahead of me on the back of the center console. Notice the rectangles — they represent cars nearby, while those little circles on the right represent pedestrians or dogs:

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Here’s a look at how some of my rides went:

The Ride Is Smooth, But I’d Love To Communicate Preference



You’ll see that, as the car makes a few announcements about how riders should use their seatbelts, they should realize they’re being filmed but not audio-recorded, and that there’s a button to push if you need to talk to a support-agent, the vehicle begins the ride — in this case to the T-Mobile store.

“This is a pretty straightforward drive…honestly I should have walked it,” I admit in the video above, noting how nice the Jaguar’s ride is. For the most part, it was uneventful, except there was a stationary USPS truck in the road, and the Waymo knew to alter its path and to slow down:

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The car was also able to see every single pedestrian in sight, especially those on crosswalks:


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One thing you, in some instances, give up when you use a self-driving car is the ability to communicate preference. Take this dropoff at the T-Mobile store. If there were a driver in the front seat, I’d have just said “Hey, you can stop here. It’s good enough,” as I valued my time above all else. But the Waymo kept trying to get closer to the curb. I’d have gladly taken a few more steps and dealt with the added risk to save time:

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I will note that it was awesome to see on the screen the warning as I opened my door: “Vehicle approaching.” Whew.

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Here’s another ride, this time to Panda Express, my new fast-food go-to:

Sometimes The Car Seems To Want To Follow An Overly-Optimized Path

“It comes to a smooth stop,” I say in the beginning of the clip above, while also noticing that the vehicle seems to steer unnecessarily sometimes, as if it’s trying to follow an optimized path that a human driver would just “smooth out” (so to speak). But overall, as optimized and aso conservative as the ride was (it sometimes avoided certain routes for reasons that weren’t obvious), it was incredibly smooth with accelerator pedal and brake inputs — the same cannot be said about all human drivers. But the physical things you experience while in the Waymo are not really what makes the experience so positive.

“The main takeaway… it drives smoothly, it stops smoothly, sometimes it drives in a way that you wouldn’t expect…but the real takeaway isn’t how the ride is…it’s the feeling you get when you’re in a car by yourself versus if you’re with someone you don’t know,” I say. What I mean is that there’s just that tiny bit of tension that you feel when you get into a car piloted by a stranger when you’re in an Uber or Lyft — tension that you don’t have to deal with in a self-driving car. And it’s palpable.

Hopping into a Waymo with my girlfriend, and knowing it’s just us… it’s a whole different vibe than if we’re with a stranger, and I’m a social person who loves meeting new people (and who loves making sure people are employed and that their jobs aren’t taken over by robots). It’s a significant improvement to the overall experience.


How It Handles An Emergency Vehicle


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You’ll notice in the video above, the Jaguar pulls to the side of the road due to an emergency vehicle coming towards us but on the other side of the media. I feel the Jag pulled over too far, perhaps unnecessarily, but it wasn’t really an issue. I’d give the performance a B+.

How It Handles A Bus Stopped In The Middle Of The Lane


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At one point my girlfriend and I found ourselves stuck behind a stopped bus, not going anywhere. It took a while, but, as you can see in the clip above, the Waymo Jaguar eventually nudged its nose into traffic that was coming from behind, ultimately forcing itself around the bus. It was awesome.

What Have We Learned?

Obviously, the “Waymo Driver”— which is what the company calls its autonomous driving technology — isn’t perfect. It sometimes pulls over in places I wouldn’t as a driver, it doesn’t take my input if I tell it “No don’t worry, you can just drop me off here,” it pulled over a little too far when an emergency vehicle was coming our way on the other side of a median, it did get stuck behind a bus a bit longer than I’d prefer, and it sometimes seems to take an idealized path that involves more turns that necessary.


But overall, the experience is incredible. In fact, I’ll go so far as to assert that it is the best transportation experience on earth for people who don’t love to drive. Just think about it: What other form of transportation will pick you up from wherever you are, let you work or watch TV or read a book while you’re making your way to your destination and listening to your own music on Bluetooth, won’t talk to you at all or bother you in any way, and offers the freedom of destination that only automobiles do.

You get in, you tell it where to go, and you just end up there, with your work done and with a stress-free mind.

There are tons of questions that need to be answered before self-driving cars become the norm — liability related questions, compatibility with emergency services, labor issues (what will happen to the Uber drivers?), logistical issues related to charging and maintenance and storage, and on and on. But from a pure experience standpoint, I think this may be the greatest transportation experience there is. Not the cleanest, to be sure, as it is still individual mobility, and it also doesn’t solve any traffic issues. Nor is it the fanciest, either (a private jet would be nicer), but I think the most convenient, and the one most likely to have the biggest impact on the world, should it ever reach the mainstream.

Our cityscapes could change (folks could work during their commute, so now a 90 minute drive is no big deal — perhaps folks will move away from cities), traffic fatalities could drop, and on and on. I’m sure you’ve all read about the many promises of self-driving cars. I’m not a huge fan of the overall concept, given that I love driving myself and I find that self-driving cars using the public as test-subjects as they develop the tech is a bit…questionable. Plus I’m not convinced that “advancing” for the sake of advancing is a good thing, especially if it takes away lots of jobs. But again, the experience of riding in a functional self-driving car: It’s good. It’s real good.

Though I’m an enthusiast and would prefer my five-speed Holy Grail Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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Another Engineer
Another Engineer
4 months ago

Our cityscapes could change (folks could work during their commute, so now a 90 minute drive is no big deal — perhaps folks will move away from cities)

You can overstate how damaging this would be to cities and transportation funding system (not to mention the waste of them driving around empty). We are already bankrupting ourselves endlessly expanding highways to accommodate supercommuters. The amount of road capacity we “need” to build to serve a driver is directly proportional to how long the trip is.

Dug Deep
Dug Deep
4 months ago

All cars are self driving cars if you’re brave enough

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