Waymo. Courtesy image.

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen one of those white, slightly-odd looking Jaguar I-Pace all-electric SUVs cruising around the city and more than likely assumed it was just a Google maps vehicle, because we’re used to seeing those about and it doesn’t look too dissimilar.

But, depending on whether you’re someone who embraces advances in autonomous automobile technology or alternatively dreads it, the reality is either amazing or alarming. They are, in essence, robot taxis operated by Waymo, which is owned by the parent company of Google, Alphabet.

Formally known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, development began back in 2009 when the team was able to drive autonomously over 10 uninterrupted 100-mile routes in a significantly modified Toyota Prius. In 2015, a gentleman named Steve Mahan, who’s legally blind, took the world’s first fully autonomous ride on public roads in Austin, Texas, in a vehicle with custom sensors, computers, steering and braking — and with no steering wheel or pedals.

The project was renamed Waymo in December 2016 following a corporate restructuring of Google and it now operates commercial self-driving taxi services in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona. Moreover, it is currently the only self-driving commercial service that operates without safety backup drivers in the vehicle. And now it’s coming to Santa Monica.

Although not just Santa Monica. Once the stuff of science fiction, these self-driving cars are becoming a common sight on our streets, they are also being tested in Koreatown, Downtown, the Miracle Mile, West Hollywood as well as the City of Santa Monica. The Daily Press went for a ride along to observe one of these fully autonomous automobiles in action.

“One of the things we’re really excited about is building experience in this neighborhood to understand all the different local nuances of how people drive in a neighborhood like Santa Monica,” said Vishay Nihalani, Group Product Manager at Waymo.

Along with Nihalani in the vehicle was Sandy Karp, Communications Manager at Waymo and a woman named Lindsay Aralar, who was sitting in the driver’s seat and had her hands never further than about an inch from the steering wheel. Aralar is an Autonomous Specialist for Waymo and it’s her job to react should there be any kind of emergency.

The heavily modified “fifth generation” Jaguar I-Pace all-electric SUV features an extensive array of sensors and instruments, including LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. While the Waymo vehicles also incorporate cameras and radar, LiDAR offers a level of accuracy for 3D mapping at a resolution hundreds of times higher than radar and there are several of these mounted over the exterior in key positions.

Nihalani explained that in the cities where the Waymo service is already fully operational, the steering wheel hasn’t been removed or blocked off, but there are informational stickers on the windows that advise against sitting in that particular seat. After all, one of the benefits of not having to drive a car home after a night out is that you can drink…and as any taxi driver will tell you, there are always instances involving drunk passengers.

“The system is designed to detect whether somebody’s touching the steering wheel,” he said. “If you were to try to grab it, you wouldn’t be able to really move it, but we can tell that you’re trying to touch it and then we can pull the vehicle over.”

Eventually, the aim is to produce a fully passenger oriented vehicle, with configurations that have no steering wheel where regulations allow that to be the case. However, there is no timeline or predetermined schedule as to when Waymo will roll out its ride hailing service.

“We don’t yet have a defined timeline that we’ve announced publicly, but things are coming along pretty well. After we launched in San Francisco, we saw it transpose quite quickly to downtown Phoenix. And now as we see it, driving here, you can feel the ride is pretty smooth,” Nihalani said.

“And so the process becomes quicker and quicker with every new city that we operate in. So hopefully, it’ll be a shorter wait time to bring these cities online, but there’s no date for the Waymo One ride hailing service here just yet.”

According to Nihalani, the vehicles are also undergoing extensive testing in rain and wet weather conditions in Washington state.

We exited the car and Nihalani pointed out all of the sensors, all of which had been very nicely molded to the contours of the car…at which point it just drove off without telling anybody or anything. I was reassured that while Autonomous Specialist Lindsay Aralar was still inside, this was all part of a typical day’s work and the vehicle had more than likely been summoned by an engineer for further testing and analysis.

San Francisco might be the unofficial tech hub of the country and California is without question one of the more progressive states in the US, but the idea is still one that might take some getting used to.

“I don’t even like Teslas, I don’t like the idea of an autopilot in a car, I think it’s creepy and weird. And, no I would never, ever have a robot drive for me. I don’t even like those things that deliver lunches. I like human contact and human interaction,” said Santa Monica resident Cindy Smith 32.

Upon being asked if he would allow himself to be driven by an autonomous car, Mike Brown 39 pondered for a very long time before answering, “No, probably not. We’ve all seen how well Tesla works. I’m being facetious by the way. So, no, I don’t think we’re really at that point just yet.”


This article has been edited to reflect that Waymo is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

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Scott Snowden

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.