New skid on the block: the knives are out for driverless cars - literally
In Phoenix, the test city for Waymo's self-driving cars, locals have even hurled rocks at them and slashed their tyres
To most people self-driving cars are the stuff of science fiction, but for the residents of Phoenix, Arizona, they are a part of daily life.
The city of 1.6 million people has become a testing ground for one of the most advanced self-driving systems in the world, developed by Google spin-off Waymo. The company is arguably the most advanced in making self-driving cars a reality, and it has so far avoided the public relations nightmare of serious accidents.
But it hasn’t been without problems. Reports in 2018 suggested that some cars had become targets for attacks from frustrated residents, who slashed tyres and threw rocks at the vehicles. Frustration at their safe, cautious driving style is a common complaint, as well as fear from motorists who see them as unpredictable and unlikely to behave like a human driver.
At a hotel near Phoenix Airport, the woman at the desk sighs at the mention of Waymo. “I hate those cars,” she says. “You’re waiting behind one to turn left and it’s just waiting, waiting, waiting, in the time that four or five cars could go.”
Waymo said the attacks affected a tiny minority of the thousands of kilometres travelled by the cars each day. But the potential for hostility from the public is something that self-driving car companies should take seriously, says Hyundai’s John Suh, vice-president and founding director of Hyundai Cradle, the company’s transport innovation lab. Fundamentally, he believes, human psychology means service robots such as self-driving cars are unusually vulnerable to attack. “If something doesn’t have feelings and it has a servant role or function, then it opens up the gateway for abuse or misuse,” he says.
Driving around the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, where the company recently launched a taxi service, the company’s white Chrysler vans are easy to spot by their branded livery and the telltale Lidar sensor, like a black pepper pot, on their roofs. In a suburban retail park, where residents are enjoying the sunshine outside a coffee shop, retiree Springfield Bufford, 71, says he is suspicious of the cars: “I can’t stand them. Nobody knows what they’re doing. They’re recording, they’re mapping the area.”
He is particularly wary because of the company’s links to Google. “Who gathers more information than Google?”
His friend, Dave, who is spooked into not giving his surname by Bufford’s ruminations about surveillance, says the pair’s age is a factor in their scepticism. “We’re older, so we’re a lot less likely to say: ‘Yes, that’s a great idea.’”
He may be right. Another customer, 16-year-old Micaiah Butts, a pupil at nearby Hamilton High School, is much more positive. “They’re nice,” he says. “I think it’s futuristic, they’re pretty cool,” though he adds that he doesn’t yet drive, and his mother, who does, “gets nervous around them”.
So what can be done? An apparent dearth of information is leaving some people confused about what the cars are actually doing. At the coffee shop, Donna Gagliardi, 54, and nine-year-old Jaci, who are on their way to Jaci’s riding lesson, say they aren’t sure how they work, or even whether they are operating as private cars or taxis. “Some people have their hands on the wheel and some people don’t,” says Gagliardi. Jaci says “there’s a weird half cylinder thing on the top” which she thinks might be for “satellites”.
Would they like more information about them? “If an alert popped up on my phone, I would read it, put it that way,” says Gagliardi.
What the car looks like could also be important. In Las Vegas, ride-hailing company Lyft has integrated 30 cars using self-driving technology into its taxi service. Taggart Matthiesen, head of product for autonomous driving, says the cars are good at going incognito. “One of the amazing things about these vehicles is they don’t look like self-driving vehicles. You don’t have the big spinning top on top of the vehicle, so people are starting to wonder what it is,” he says.
Car companies could even learn from Hollywood, where film series such as Herbie and Star Wars portray human characters emotionally attached to their machines, says Suh. “People have a connection with the cars they buy, they give the cars names, they customise them. Car companies need to distil that kind of information from the customer base today – what makes somebody attached to their vehicle?”
Actually putting passengers in the cars might be the quickest way to bring them onside. In 2018, Waymo announced it had launched a commercial taxi service, Waymo One. It’s not yet fully open, but is being slowly expanded, starting with the scheme’s earliest users, members of the public known as early riders. Lyft’s cars are already fully open to the public, which Matthiesen says aids understanding. “There’s no white list or anything. Anyone who comes to Vegas who has an app can experience this.”Phoenix resident Max Calvo, 47, a network engineer, has been part of the Waymo early rider programme since September 2018 and regularly uses the cars. “I was completely blown away by the technology. I am just amazed at what these vehicles are able to do. They are better than human drivers,” he says. He’s only experienced mild hostility on one occasion – when another motorist leaned on their hooter for a long period while the car was picking him up.
He thinks that some of the fear might stem from a fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving car in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, in March 2018, which killed a pedestrian as she crossed a road at night.
“That actually freaked out a lot of people,” he says. “But you have to compare apples to apples here. Waymo has a much better apple than Uber.”
Calvo has started taking friends on rides too, and says they are always impressed. “Overwhelmingly, people in Phoenix are very receptive. It is a very small group of folks who are against it.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)