Picture this: You unlock your iPhone and order a ride to the airport. But instead of an Uber arriving 10 minutes later, driver behind the wheel, a Waymo pulls up to your door. You know, one of those white robotic vehicles that have been driving around Phoenix with a whirling sensor attached to the top.
No need to stare at your screen the entire time or pop in your AirPods to avoid forced conversation with the driver, though. This thing is fully autonomous. It’s already a reality in parts of the East Valley, where Waymo One, the completely driverless ride-hailing service, can get you from Chandler Fashion Center to Mesa Community College in a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan. The company plans to expand its autonomous car service to downtown Phoenix soon, it just announced.
While Waymo has tested Valley roads since 2016, there has been a recent uptick of the modern motors in central Phoenix, with white Jaguar I-PACEs cruising down McDowell Road and fanning out through historic neighborhoods.
Sensors on the vehicle collect information about its surroundings, which computer algorithms use to predict the movement of cars, bikes, pedestrians, and anything else on the road.
The downtown Phoenix launch will happen in phases. Waymo employees will hail trips with autonomous specialists behind the wheel first, then with driverless vehicles. (Waymo’s San Francisco employees began riding autonomous vehicles for the first time in the tech-filled city Wednesday). After this, members of the public can take Waymos through their Trusted Tester program in the hopes that they can soon hop on the Waymo One app and catch a quick ride to Hanny’s or to watch the NBA's Suns crush their visiting opponents.
Waymo One operates in a 50-square-mile service area across Chandler and southeast Tempe, where riders have been hopping into Herbie-esque cars since 2020. Of the 600 vehicles in the Waymo fleet, there are between 300 to 400 in Phoenix, according to TechCrunch. A Waymo spokesperson reported that the company's cars have driven more than 500,000 autonomous miles in the East Valley over “tens of thousands of rides.”
Sophia Lovasz, a mom of three who lives in the Warner Ranch area of Tempe, is one of those riders. Lovasz says she has taken more than a hundred rides through the service since 2018, before the vehicles were driverless.
“It was really scary at first and hard to believe that the car was actually driving itself,” Lovasz said. “It’s like being in the belly of a robot.”
Her first autonomous ride was in April 2021, when Lovasz took a Bird scooter from Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to Tempe Public Library, within the Waymo One operating area. She then caught a Waymo ride home from there to complete her technological transportation. The four-mile-long ride was $8.26 through Waymo; the same ride via Uber costs $11.55.
Lovasz has documented her numerous Waymo rides on her TikTok @sosobombs. Her videos include titles like “Conversations from the driverless taxi” and answer questions about the autonomous rides, like whether kids can board the vehicles. In one video inside a Waymo Chrysler Pacifica, the camera pans to Lovasz’s 8-year-old daughter Anastasia, who is happily seated in a booster seat.
The wait for a Waymo is between six and 20 minutes, comparable to other ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, said Lovasz, and so is the price, though she said that it costs less at times.
“Uber is trippin’ lately and sometimes it’s significantly cheaper to take a Waymo, but on average it’s about the same,” she said.
Lovasz feels safe in the vehicles, which she said “anticipate things better than humans,” and is hopeful for the day when they are operable in downtown Tempe. While Waymo has no official plans to operate there, and an exact downtown Phoenix rollout date has not been announced, it’s clear that the company has big plans for the Valley.
“Just as our previous experience allowed us to deploy our 5th-gen Driver in San Francisco quickly and with confidence, the combination of our experience in San Francisco and Phoenix’s East Valley, grounded in millions of miles of real-world driving and boosted by billions of miles driven in simulation, is already guiding our progress in downtown Phoenix,” Waymo co-CEO Dmitri Dolgov said in a company statement.