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Autonomous Vehicles Google

Waymo’s Backseat Drivers: Confidential Data Reveals Self-Driving Taxi Hurdles

One passenger in a Waymo self-driving car complained that the awkward end to his ride felt like he was getting dropped off by his dad. Others said their Waymo rides made them late to work. Another praised his car for coping admirably with “idiot drivers” of the human variety during his ride.

The rider feedback is part of a trove of internal data viewed by The Information for more than 10,500 trips in vehicles operated by Waymo, the self-driving car division of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. For more than two years, Waymo has been ferrying passengers in the self-driving vehicles on public streets as it refines the technology in the hopes of a wider rollout. The passenger ratings and feedback come from rides that occurred in July and part of August—mostly in the Phoenix area—and show improvement compared to Waymo’s performance during 2,500 rides in the first quarter of the year, based on an earlier analysis

For the Phoenix area, negative passenger feedback about everything from comfort level in vehicles to the frequency of unsafe or annoying incidents dropped by 10 percentage points compared to the earlier period, according to the data. Riders gave a perfect rating to 70% of the trips they took during the period, even though the vehicles experienced a glitch or two in a small percentage of those trips. (See separate story for a detailed breakdown on the recent Waymo customer complaints.)

The Takeaway
• Waymo passenger ratings for 10,500 trips reveal challenges
• Negative ratings from recent Phoenix riders down from first quarter
• Riders in Phoenix gave 70% of Waymo trips positive feedback

The data provide the most detailed view yet of the passenger experience inside vehicles from Waymo, which doesn’t disclose the information even though it uses public roads as its testing grounds. The data depict the slow grind self-driving car developers are going through as they seek to commercialize the technology, following years of missed deadlines for broader launches. 

The Waymo vehicles included in the data aren’t exactly “driverless” because they still have human backup drivers behind the wheel who take over when the vehicles run into trouble. Waymo employees also monitor them remotely from offices to help if they get stuck. While Waymo is widely considered to be the leader in its field after more than a decade of painstaking software and hardware development, it is likely years away from giving driverless rides to masses of customers in suburban America, and even further away from doing so in dense metropolitan areas.

Waymo is part of Alphabet’s hunt for new markets beyond its core Google search business that could one day fuel growth. Waymo executives have said privately and to potential investors that the company should be worth tens of billions of dollars based on future revenue potential. Alphabet stock analysts also have been assigning sky-high valuations to the unit in recent years.

A Waymo spokesman did not comment publicly for this article. 

The data examined by The Information came from anonymized feedback written by Waymo passengers through the mobile app used to hail rides. Its rides in Silicon Valley are limited to Waymo employees. In the Phoenix area, many passengers are currently riding in Waymo vehicles for free, though a portion are paying. 

Collectively, the data suggest it will take Alphabet awhile before its vehicles are ready for prime time. Waymo managers have said they want to compete against Uber and Lyft, but the data show how far they have to go before achieving high levels of reliability, safety and comfort. Any passenger rating of less than a perfect score of five stars is classified as “negative.” For each negative rating, the passengers specify problems they experienced—primarily with the vehicle’s driving behavior.

“Car kept shaking like it was going to go into a diff[erent] lane. Very scary for me, wife and kids,” wrote one recent rider in Phoenix.

Sometimes Waymo’s vehicles took circuitous routes to their destinations, leading to complaints from passengers who were late for work and appointments. 

“Please do something about the routing,” one Waymo rider in Phoenix wrote. 

In Silicon Valley, one of its employee-passengers said their Waymo car drove past the requested drop-off location and “proceeded very slowly and awkwardly” as it let the rider out near a crowded bus stop. “It was kind of embarrassing. It felt like I was getting dropped off by my dad,” they wrote. The vehicle’s behavior likely reflects the extra caution Waymo vehicles are programmed to have around pedestrians.

The feedback from another Silicon Valley rider was especially blunt. “That ride was shit!” they wrote. “Uncomfortable and downright alarming.”

Of the rider feedback for the roughly 10,500 Waymo trips seen by The Information, about 6,100 were rides in the southern Phoenix suburbs where Waymo operates. Passengers there provided negative feedback for 30% of their rides in the recent two-month period. That is down from a complaint rate of 40% in the Phoenix market during the first quarter of the year, a figure from an earlier analysis by The Information.

'Car kept shaking like it was going to go into a diff[erent] lane. Very scary for me, wife and kids,' wrote one recent Waymo rider in Phoenix.

Most Waymo riders in the Phoenix area during the period gave the rides positive markings, defined as five out of five stars. Among those praising Waymo was a rider who said their vehicle “did some outstanding maneuvering through some precarious traffic situations.” 

Another rider in Phoenix noticed improvement in recent rides compared to months earlier. “Bravo!” the rider said. Others said their rides were “perfect,” and one asked Waymo to let passengers play video games on the seat-back screens, which currently give passengers information about what their vehicles are doing.

Some riders were forgiving of mistakes or hesitations of Waymo’s vehicles. “I understand it’s still in testing,” wrote one Phoenix rider who complained about the route the vehicle took, but still gave it a perfect rating. Another Phoenix rider did the same, despite frequent “unsettling” movements by the vehicle.

“How hard is it to write code to consider all the completely stupid things drivers do. You guys are amazing,” wrote another rider in Phoenix, who blamed his Waymo van’s unusual moves on “idiot drivers entering or exiting traffic flow with complete disregard for right of way and maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles.” 

In Silicon Valley, the complaint rate for Waymo rides was much higher for the recent two-month period: 47%. A comparable figure for those rides from earlier in the year couldn’t be learned. A person close to Waymo said the company encourages its employee-riders to be especially tough in their reviews. Silicon Valley also poses greater difficulty for Waymo’s vehicles than the Phoenix area because there is more traffic and cyclists, and the streets are narrower.

As it works on the kinks with its technology, there are likely to be limits to Alphabet’s patience with Waymo, according to employees of the unit. To become a real business, Waymo will have to solve the technical issues with its vehicles and launch them in true “driverless” mode, eliminating the human backup drivers that currently ride behind the wheel of the vehicles as a safety precaution. 

Waymo’s tests of truly driverless vehicles are even more limited than its broader trials, generally confined to rides on its private property in Castle, Calif., and in a limited stretch of suburban Phoenix, said people familiar with the situation. Sometimes, Waymo’s driverless vehicles can go more than 10 or 15 miles without facing a problem, one of these people said.

Waymo will also have to expand its ride service to busier areas like San Francisco, where it isn’t currently testing vehicles. Former employees estimate Waymo costs at least $500 million a year to operate.

And Waymo will eventually have to be able to compete with the convenience of human-driven taxis and ride-hailing services. Some Waymo riders were dubious.

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“The service is great because it’s free but two out of my four rides have had problems and if I had to pay for them I would [rather] probably use a service like Lyft,” said one recent Phoenix area rider who complained about a jerky ride, adding that the vehicle erroneously drove past their destination.

Said another Phoenix-area rider: “I guess Lyft has me spoiled. I like getting dropped off in front of the place im going too [sic] not just in the parking lot....You guy[s] have a [lot] of kinks to work out.”

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