Money Matters

Waymo Tests Its Self-Driving Cars In My Town. Here Are The Odd Things I’ve Seen.


Robert Rapier

Two years ago on my daily commute to work in Chandler, Arizona, I noticed something new sharing the roads with me: a fleet of white cars with a funny contraption on top of it, and prominent decals on the side labeled “Google” and “Self-Driving Car.” I snapped the photo above the first time I got to see one up close.

Chandler had become one of the test sites for Google’s autonomous vehicle program. Today, the “Google” decal has been replaced with “Waymo,” the company Google created to commercialize its AV technology, but the fleet of Lexus RX 450h SUV hybrids is still going strong.

The cars have a human driver behind the steering wheel ready to take control if needed, but according to Google those interventions have been few. In 2016 Waymo drove 635,868 miles autonomously in California and reported an average of only one disengagement every 5,128 miles to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

My Observations

I have a short three-mile commute to work, but I see two to four of these cars on average each day. Today, for example, I made the round-trip to and from work, taking a slightly different route each way, and I encountered four Waymo cars.

As an engineer, I am intensely curious about how these vehicles behave, so I have observed them closely. Since 2015, I have taken more than a hundred pictures and video clips of them, in many different situations, and I have observed them do some strange things. At least, strange from the perspective of a human driver.

Once I was stopped at a stoplight. One of the AVs approached the light at a 90-degree angle from me to my left and made a left turn. But it turned too tightly, going directly into the turn lane of oncoming traffic (which was stopped at the light directly across from me). It stopped well short of hitting the car stopped there and then adjusted its turn back into the proper lane. (I don’t know if the human driver intervened, or perhaps it was under human control at the time).

Recently, one of the cars was behind me as I was driving through my neighborhood. Ahead of me was a landscaper, whose trailer was blocking the bicycle path and part of the road. As I approached, I looked ahead and simply moved to the left around the trailer (as any human driver would). But I watched in my rearview mirror as the AV came to a complete stop and just sat there behind the trailer. I never saw it move before I lost sight of it. It seemed like the car had encountered an unusual situation, and wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Even after I started working on this article, I was behind a Waymo AV at a stoplight. It was turning left, and there was a car opposite turning left. But the car opposite was slightly blocking the view of oncoming traffic. I could move my head slightly and see that there was nothing coming, but the Waymo AV’s sensors apparently could not. So it sat there, partially in the intersection, slowly creeping forward. It probably took it 10 seconds longer to navigate the turn than it would have taken a human driver.

More Info: