Tech

Waymo Fleets Are Zooming Around Central Phoenix on a Mission

A Waymo vehicle drives down McDowell Road in central Phoenix.
A Waymo vehicle drives down McDowell Road in central Phoenix. Sean Holstege
We've all seen them. These robot cars, with their strange, twirling appendages.

They're here, there, and seemingly everywhere these days.

It's like War of the Worlds without the creepy genocidal Martians inside. Invasion of the robots.

Rest easy. They are just Waymos. Way mo' of them than before. But this is not a radio hoax.

The white Waymo vehicles may be only ferrying passengers in some cities across the Valley, but the autonomous cars have been seen increasingly zipping around central Phoenix pacing across busy intersections and gathering in grocery store parking lots.

So what gives?

Waymo One, the Google-affiliated company’s ride-hailing app service, is itching to expand beyond its 50- square-mile boundary of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. Waymo One has been piloting driverless vehicles in Phoenix and San Francisco taking passengers around town no more than five stops.

There are between 300 and 400 Waymo vehicles in Phoenix, TechCrunch, a technology-centric news website estimates.

Waymo has been in the region since 2016 with Chrysler Pacific Hybrid minivans and more recently the Jaguar I-PACE, a luxury electric-powered SUV - most often seen in Phoenix’s midtown neighborhoods.

The company didn’t start picking up the general public as passengers until 2020, the same year the coronavirus pandemic hit and halted its progress. The company initially forecasted it would roam across 100-square miles of the Valley by 2018. Since its pilot programs dating back to 2017, the company has had thousands of rides and finished tens of thousands of trips in the Phoenix area.

Waymo uses sensors on the vehicle to gather information about its surroundings from pedestrians to other cars on the road but also construction and traffic signals. Computer algorithms then use that data and attempt to predict the movement of anything on the road.

Why the recent uptick in vehicles on the roadways in Phoenix where the company isn’t yet picking up riders?

“We are always actively evaluating new territories and places to drive,” said Julianne McGoldrick, spokesperson at Waymo. “Mapping and testing play a key role in that.”

On any particular day, those vehicles could be mapping, testing, or taking riders around town. Probing, as Orson Welles would tell it.

“The vehicles you may be seeing in new areas could be part of various mapping or testing missions,” McGoldrick said.

But the company was mum on exactly when the autonomous vehicles may start picking up passengers in central Phoenix.

Last year the company shared results of 6.1 million miles of Waymo driving operations, of which 65,000 miles were driverless without a person behind the steering wheel. The company boasts the data represented more than 500 years worth of experience driving. In early 2020 the company took passengers on more than 1,000 rides each week roughly 5% of which were driverless. During its tenure in Phoenix there were 18 times when Waymo vehicles collided with other vehicles or pedestrians and 29 stimulated collisions for testing purposes, according to a study by the company. The collisions, whether real or simulated, represented a variety of accidents including cars being rear-ended, sideswipes and pedestrians or cyclists involved.

Sometimes the vehicles have malfunctioned in traffic and caused accidents though the company asserts such cases are rare. Waymo vehicles have even been attacked on the road some having tires slashed or rocks thrown at them around town.
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