PHOENIX – Calling an Uber doesn’t necessarily mean calling an Uber driver any more in the Valley.
Uber, the ride-hailing company, and Waymo, one of the companies seeking to popularize driverless cars, announced in late October that Uber customers will have the option of getting “a fully autonomous, all-electric Waymo ride – with no human driver behind the wheel” in those parts of metro Phoenix where Waymo operates.
When riders request one of four different types of rides through the Uber app, they could be matched with a driverless Waymo vehicle. They will then have the option of confirming the Waymo ride or declining it and getting a ride with a human driver instead.
“Our partnership with Uber gives their riders the chance to experience the Waymo Driver,” said Waymo Co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana in the statement announcing the option. “As we continue to scale, we want as many people as possible to experience the safety, consistency and delight of riding with the Waymo Driver.”
In 2017, Waymo launched its early rider program in Chandler. Waymo now provides more than 10,000 rides each week in the region.
“I took a ride in a driverless Waymo and I was so anxious before it started but quickly decided it is a great way to travel,” Chandler resident Lenora Treacy said, noting it was a “clean luxurious vehicle, and traffic rules were followed flawlessly.”
Treacy went on to say in a November interview: “There’s no strange driver picking me up, no worries about the driver’s state of mind, ego, road rage or possible intoxication. I’ve been on plenty of taxi rides that would turn your hair gray.”
The Uber-Waymo announcement came as Cruise, the driverless vehicle division of General Motors, paused driverless operations nationwide, in the wake of a California accident where one of its cars struck and dragged a pedestrian 20 feet.
By contrast, in January 2023, Waymo reached 1 million miles on public roads with no humans behind the wheel and published a research paper that summarized collisions.
In those first million miles, there were 20 collisions since 2020 in California and Arizona, nine of which had no damage.
There were no reported injuries, and only two collisions met the criteria for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Crash Investigation Sampling System database for car crashes, according to the report.
This database consists of crashes that were reported to the police and in which at least one vehicle had to be towed away.
“I had one of those Waymo self-driving cars turn in front of me making a left hand turn on to Indian School coming off of 32nd Street going west when I had the green and the right of way, going south on 32nd Street. … I had to abruptly stop,” Phoenix resident Richard Elza said in an interview. “Crazy thing never skipped a beat, drove on its merry way. I don’t trust those self-driving cars.”
However, there are some people like Sophia Lovasz, who are excited for this partnership. Lovasz wrote a blog post for Waymo in 2021 about her experiences.
“I have been riding with Waymo since 2018 and I feel absolutely safe when I’m in Waymo vehicles. I’ve had 137 rides, which is 1,034 miles,” Lovasz said in a recent interview.
Uber customers in Phoenix who are eager to try the autonomous rides can increase their chances of being matched with a Waymo by updating their preferences in the app.
Uber announced it was selling off its self-driving research unit in late 2020. The company faced backlash after one of its self-driving test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018 in Tempe. It was the first reported fatal crash involving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian in the United States.