Waymo’s test riders offer honest opinions on its robo-taxi service

For the last couple of years, Waymo has been offering paid-for and free rides in its self-driving cars to help it hone its technology ahead of a planned expansion of ridesharing services using its autonomous vehicles.

According to rider-submitted feedback for more than 10,500 Waymo trips taken over the summer on public roads in Phoenix, Arizona, and San Francisco, California, the majority of experiences have been rated very highly. Though clearly not everyone is having a great time.

The results of the feedback, submitted to Waymo anonymously by riders via an app, have been revealed in a report by The Information.

For trips taken in the Phoenix area, for example, passengers gave a perfect five-star rating to 70% of their autonomous rides, despite some of the vehicles experiencing minor issues along the way. Compared to data collected earlier in the year, negative feedback dropped by 10% after passengers made fewer complaints about matters such as the comfort of the vehicle — a modified Pacifica Chrysler minivan — and “unsafe or annoying incidents.”

“Downright alarming”

But there’s obviously still room for improvement, with one rider describing their experience as “uncomfortable and downright alarming,” though precisely why the trip was so awful isn’t clear. Others grumbled about “weird drop-offs, circuitous routes, and shaky driving,” though on a more positive note, some riders were impressed by the autonomous vehicle’s ability to cope with “idiot drivers of the human variety.”

At 47 percent, the number of sub-five-star ratings for riders in San Francisco was higher than in Phoenix. This could be for a number of reasons. For example, in San Francisco, riders were mainly Waymo employees, with one of them telling The Information that the company encourages them not to hold back when it comes to offering their views on each ride. Also, San Francisco’s busier, narrower, and steeper streets may pose a greater challenge for self-driving cars, resulting in more less-than-perfect ratings from riders.

Safety driver present … usually

When out on public roads, Waymo’s autonomous vehicles have a safety driver on board ready to take over the controls in case of a problem. But the company has also been trialing rides without a safety driver. It even released a video showing the reactions of passengers as they were driven around in a self-driving car all by themselves for the very first time.

It’s certainly interesting to see some of the ratings and comments offered by riders after their trips. The data appears to indicate that while the company is clearly making progress, Waymo — considered a leader in the self-driving space — still has some work to do to perfect its technology and improve the rider experience.

Wide-scale robo-taxi services could still be a ways off, however, as regulators seek assurances regarding the technology’s ability to safely handle challenging road conditions and inclement weather.

Underlining the scale of the task, GM-backed Cruise, another self-driving company and one with huge financial backing, recently said it could no longer meet its end-of-year deadline to launch a full-fledged driverless taxi service as it needs to conduct more on-road testing to further refine its technology.

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