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Technology | Review

Self-driving taxis are here. This is what it’s like to ride in one.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

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Waymo, which grew out of Google’s self-driving project, is believed to be the most advanced autonomous car company. Here in Phoenix, it’s been testing a 24-7 robo-taxi service with over 400 volunteer riders.

Waymo says that program will open to the public by the end of the year. But big questions linger: What’s it like to ride in one? Are they safe? And how long until self-driving cars creep into your neighborhood?

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Our ride today is a Chrysler Pacifica. But this is no regular minivan.

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

The car has cameras mounted on top, along with a radar and laser-based lidar mapping systems along the sides.

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Before you climb in, forget about storing stuff in the trunk: It’s filled with computers.

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Ready to ride? First, you select your location and destination on a phone app, much like ordering an Uber.

Once inside, a touch screen instructs you what to do next.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

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I just had to look: Yes, the wheel moves itself.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

But in this Waymo, there’s actually still a human in the driver’s seat. Why’s that?

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Geoffrey A. Fowler/ The Washington Post

That guy is our safety monitor. Even though Waymo says it can run cars without humans inside, for most rides it’s still paying people to sit there and take over if needed.

Sometimes, there’s an additional Waymo assistant in the car, too.

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The monitors are one sign of how much self-driving tech has to improve, for Waymo and its competitors.

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These screens cycle through a live graphical representation of what the Waymo’s sensors can “see.” Other vehicles are blue, bikers are light blue and pedestrians are white.

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Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

The idea is to put passengers at ease about letting a robot take the wheel. Waymo cars collect a tremendous amount of data and use it to make judgments, like whether an oncoming vehicle is likely to run a red light.

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So what kind of driver is Waymo? In a word: timid.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

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Where does Waymo have driving difficulty? Left turns can be painfully slow — like this one coming out of Waymo’s office park that took nearly 30 seconds.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

Yes, the Waymo sees things humans cannot. But it doesn’t always know what to do with the information.

Unexpected obstacles or unidentified objects can cause the Waymo to go even slower — or just stop.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

Another problem: Waymo doesn’t always know where to stop to pick up its passenger like an Uber driver might when he sees you waving from across the street.

Waymo manager Saswat Panigrahi says improving pickups has been a big lesson from its early-rider program.

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Riding in the Waymo feels like sitting in the backseat with a very cautious student driver.

There's still a teacher in the front who can pull the emergency brake — but you're rarely going fast enough to worry.

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What happens if something does go wrong? There are buttons to call for help or ask the car to pull over. (Waymo asked me not to push them unless there’s an emergency.)

Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post

Geoffrey A. Fowler/ The Washington Post

Waymo’s cars have been in minor crashes, though none fatal like rival Uber. Only one was caused by Waymo. When there are crashes, it's sometimes when a human is manually driving the car.

This week, Waymo hired its first chief safety officer: Deborah Hersman, the former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

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When will robo-taxis come to your town? The short answer: It’s going to be years.

After a year and a half of tests with early riders in Phoenix, Waymo still hasn’t given a firm date, price or scale for its public rollout.

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In our test ride, Waymo insisted on choosing the driving destination: a quiet suburb near its Phoenix office.

Phoenix, home to dry conditions and wide, flat roads, is an easier place for self-driving cars to navigate than many other cities.

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And every city has different conditions that require new training for the self-driving tech. Waymo recently got permission to test rides without safety monitors in California.

Waymo has tested its cars on roads in 25 cities, but it has said little about when it will launch other early-rider programs or public robo-taxi services.

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Looks like this ride is coming to an end.

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Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post

Whoops, the Waymo’s door isn’t self-closing. Driving a car isn’t completely automated — yet.

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