Since Waymo arrived in the Phoenix metro in 2016, the company has steadily grown its footprint in the state. Waymo, which shares a parent company with Google, tests self-driving commercial trucks and self-driving taxis in the Phoenix metro. The company has a depot in Chandler and plans to open a second facility in Mesa later this year.
Lorraine Rivera went for a ride in one of the taxis with Dez Hatathli, Waymo’s local policy and community manager in Arizona. Hatathli explained some of the capabilities of its autonomous driving system.
“We have a vision system, which is the camera system located up in the dome. We also use a combination of the lidar and radar sensors. They’re located all the way around the vehicle. It gives the car the ability to see 360 degrees around for about three football fields in length,” Hatathli said. She said the systems are continuously learning how to react to objects in the road and emergency situations.
Autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona came under national scrutiny in March 2018 when a self-driving car belonging to Uber hit and killed a woman walking her bike across a street in Tempe. A report from federal investigators found Uber had disabled emergency breaking while its vehicles were in self-drive mode and relied on backup drivers to intervene. The backup driver involved did not react in time. Arizona suspended Uber’s right to test self-driving cars in the state.
Waymo has never experienced a situation as severe, and the company knows such incidents stoke public skepticism that it must overcome.
“The technology is relatively new. I know there is a lot of apprehension about giving control of the car away to a robot, but I think what we like to do is be able to start the conversation early. So before we come into a city, we like to be able to sit down with local leadership, also with law enforcement and anybody who’s a stakeholder,” Hatathli said. “Take that time to educate them about the technology, but then also answer a lot of questions that might come out of that.”
Community stakeholders include the East Valley Partnership, an organization focused on promoting economic development in the Phoenix metro’s eastern region. President Denny Barney explained the group’s support for Waymo.
“Our feeling is simply this. This is the evolution of transportation. It’s happening right here in the East Valley. The way we move people, the way we move goods is going to change dramatically in our lifetimes,” Barney said.
Currently about a thousand people can request Waymo rides in the Phoenix metro through its app called Waymo One. Feedback from early riders helps the company in its goal to eventually remove safety drivers from its vehicles. Lorraine Rivera asked Hatathli what will become of those drivers once they are no longer necessary.
“As a former driver I’ve transitioned into a new role. And we also have other drivers on the team that have moved to technical operations or some of our other support teams,” Hatathli said. “We’re still very much in the early process of rolling this technology out, but the opportunities are going to be there.”