CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) – The annoyed shopper paced back and forth and knocked on the windows of a van preventing him from leaving his Costco parking spot. He didn’t seem to notice, or care, that there was no one inside.

A colleague and I called for the Waymo ride – our first in a completely driverless vehicle – and quickly encountered a hiccup: figuring out how to tell him to meet us on the sidewalk.

We ended up spotting the van through the busy parking lot and hurrying. As we walked away, the client raised his arm and extended his middle finger.

Welcome to the United States’ first full-scale helpline service without an emergency driver, which Waymo recently launched in suburban Phoenix.

An AP photographer and I took it for a ride and discovered some awesome technology. Waymo minivans adeptly adhere to the rules of the road and can detect people, vehicles and objects from several hundred meters away.

But amid the advancements lurk the challenges developers face when trying to bring self-driving cars to the mainstream: adapting machines to human behavior – and getting passengers to feel comfortable with no one behind the wheel. .

“The technology is great, but the experience isn’t there yet,” said Andrew Maynard, a professor in the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University, who studies the social and ethical aspects of autonomous vehicles and others. emerging technologies.

Waymo, a unit of parent company Google Alphabet Inc., is one of several companies testing driverless vehicles in the United States. in the driver’s seat, which can take over in difficult situations.

During our rides, the minivans slowed down for speed bumps and made a right turn onto red. Most impressive was a cautious maneuver at a green light where a woman with a walker stood perilously near the corner.

But customers in crowded parking lots may find it difficult to locate pickup locations without drivers who can call, text, or just monitor them.

A Waymo minivan also made an aggressive turn at a green light that we never would have taken. Another failed to get to the requested location, dropping us off about a four minute walk away.

And watching the wheel turn on its own was, well, strange.

The company said it listens carefully to customer feedback and recognizes that it needs to improve passenger handling. He is also working on setting appropriate expectations with runners and has launched a campaign that provides guidance.

Automakers and tech companies moved quickly to put autonomous vehicles into action in 2018, but a fatal crash involving an Uber test vehicle in Tempe slowed development.

It is only recently that the industry has shown signs of recovery. Still, most experts believe there won’t be widespread use for about five years, and autonomous vehicles won’t be in all major cities for at least the end of this decade.

Waymo began offering autonomous rides to a limited number of customers in 2019 as part of an initial test program in Arizona. Last fall, it opened up its rideshare program to anyone looking to get around its 129-square-kilometer (50-square-mile) service area covering parts of Chandler, Tempe, and Mesa.

Our journey began with a welcome from the van – an automated voice correctly pronounced my French name, which people often mutilate. A bulkhead separated the empty front seats from the rest of the vehicle, with a sign saying, “Do not touch the steering wheel.”

I felt uncomfortable as the van slid into an intersection and waited for oncoming traffic to pass before turning left. It was as if a ghost was operating the steering wheel.

My nervousness went up until a few minutes later when we made a daring left turn at another green light.

With several oncoming cars speeding towards us, the van crossed the road into a parking lot. Although we didn’t come close to crashing, the turn scared us.

Waymo then reviewed the maneuver, saying the cameras and remote sensing technology in a dome atop the van detected oncoming cars, knew their speed and understood the vehicle could safely make the turn.

“In your case, it was certainly safe,” Saswat Panigrahi, senior product manager at Waymo told me.

The company said customer feedback is being used to refine its autonomous driving systems and user interfaces to address these safety concerns.

Its ridesharing program serves hundreds of riders every week and offers prices online with Uber and Lyft. Waymo manages 300 to 400 vehicles in Arizona for the program and testing.

We flagged down another Waymo van at a public library, but were dropped off on a nearby private street instead. Panigrahi believes the van may have been diverted due to traffic or a road closure in the area.

From there we tried to head back to Costco, but Waymo canceled four travel requests and stopped accepting my credit card as a fraud prevention measure as multiple requests were made within minutes. .

With my Waymo account locked, I requested a ride from another rideshare service with a human driver. He spoke warmly of his career plans, but when he first picked us up he carefully avoided trying to pronounce my name.


Associated Press author Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report. ___

This story has been corrected to say that Waymo’s service area in the Phoenix suburbs is 50 square miles, not 55 square miles.


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