As the doors closed on our Waymo trip, a friendly chime played over the Chrysler Pacifica’s speakers. Because Waymo is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which has some history refining the user experience, I assume this chime was carefully curated from a collection of dozens, if not hundreds, of possibilities, specifically engineered to make me feel comfortable in a car that is now driving itself on public Arizona roads.
Do the chime and other little touches like it really matter? Sure, it sets the literal tone for the journey, and especially for first time riders like myself, it subconsciously eased me into a bit of relaxation. I’m sure Google has done some fancy social psychology research proving that this exact pleasant chime makes people more likely to react positively to whatever happens next.
But the chime is just one part of Waymo’s strategy to get people comfortable in cars without human drivers.
To learn more about how Waymo plans to do this, we took a ride in one with Saswat Panigrahi, Director of Product at Waymo. He says that the ultimate compliment a rider can give his team is to fall asleep in the car, but in the event riders keep their eyes open, there’s a screen mounted on the front headrests that shows riders just what the car is “seeing.”
But, on a higher level, the chime and screens can only do so much. What matters most is that the car drives like a safe human driver. If, say, the car immediately swerved at the next intersection into oncoming traffic, or slammed on the brakes to avoid colliding with another vehicle, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t give the slightest crap what sound the car made when I closed the door.
I was served an unfortunate reminder of this on my taxi home from the airport after I returned from the Waymo visit. My cab driver seemed to take lane markings as mere suggestions, ones that he was more than happy to ignore. The entirety of our journey down the Belt Parkway was spent straddling two lanes. Other drivers honked at him, at least one flipped him off as they passed. Not long after, the driver almost hip-checked a cyclist on Flatbush Avenue then came to a sudden stop in the middle of a T intersection rather than run the red because he realized halfway through there was a cop waiting at the light.
By the time I got home, frazzled and thankful to still be in one piece, I remembered that the bar Waymo and other driverless car companies have to clear in order to be better than their human counterparts is, unfortunately, quite low. Hopefully they can be a great deal better than that.