The Putative Arrival of Self-Driving Cars

A friend of mine was talking about how self-driving car technology is almost ready for general use and gave as evidence that this is likely to be the case that Waymo is already operating an autonomous ride-sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona, and has recently expanded to San Francisco.

So I looked into this.

It is true that Waymo is operating a driverless ride-sharing service, called Waymo One, in Phoenix Arizona, and has been doing so since 2018 (with a several month pause due to COVID-19, back in 2020). However, this is slightly misleading. According to Waymo One’s FAQ, “Our Waymo One fully autonomous ride-hailing service operates within parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.”

Here’s a map of Phoenix, Arizona, which Wikipedia linked to, and I’ve circled Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. (Approximately; there might be a bit of these places outside of the purple circle—I’m not familiar with Arizona geography and couldn’t find similar interactive maps for Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler.)

Waymo chose Phoenix because (being in the desert and pretty far south) it’s basically a place with no weather. So in this best-case scenario for the Waymo self-driving car, three years into running their autonomous service they’re still not running in most of the Phoenix metro area. Heck, they’re still not even running in Phoenix (proper).

At this rate… I’m not even sure that there is a rate of expansion. Extrapolating their progress in the last 3 years, it might be another 100 years before they offer rides in all of the Phoenix metro area.

But they’ve expanded to San Francisco!

Yeah, they have. Except that in San Francisco the Waymo One cars have an “autonomous specialists riding in the driver’s seat.” Also, the ride-sharing program is only open to people in the “trusted tester program,” which is “a confidential research program within Waymo One, where select riders will have access to our service and can share their experiences directly with our team to help shape the future of autonomous driving”. (I’m quoting from their FAQ.)

So “expanded to San Francisco” means that they are now running some number of tests, using safety drivers, and with passengers who have signed NDAs and can’t tell anyone how badly it’s going.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that self-driving cars are impossible. I doubt that Waymo’s hyper-detailed maps approach is really the way forward, but as the saying goes, of all things the future is the hardest to predict.

I think it’s important to be realistic, though. There is no reason to believe that self-driving cars are just a few years away from being a standard option on cars at the dealership.

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