In a nondescript depot in suburban Arizona, the future of transportation is getting a tune-up. This is where Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, houses its growing fleet of self-driving cars: hundreds of Chrysler Pacifica minivans fitted with highly advanced hardware and software that enables them to safely ride on public roads without a human driver behind the wheel.
For over a year, Waymo has been offering trips to the 400-plus members of its Early Rider program who use Waymo’s ride-hailing app to summon the minivans for free trips to school, the mall, the gym, or elsewhere within its suburban Phoenix service area. Soon, Waymo will make that service available to the general public and it will start charging money for it, too. At the outset, the company plans on offering fully autonomous rides with a Waymo employee in the car only as a chaperone. And when that happens, it will make history as the first fully driverless taxi service in the world.
In advance of the launch of its commercial ride-hailing service later this year, Waymo shared exclusive details with The Verge about all the work that goes on behind the scenes. At the heart of that activity is the company’s 60,000-square-foot depot, where its fleet of autonomous vehicles are tended to by teams of technicians, engineers, and mechanics, as well as customer service reps and product managers.
Though there are plenty of skeptics, many expect self-driving cars to fundamentally change how we get around, and fleet management is one of the hidden challenges that will determine whether autonomous technology succeeds or fails. Driverless vehicles in such fleets will have to be on the road almost around the clock to offset the cost of the sensors, computer chips, software, and other systems that allow them to drive safely and reach their destinations without human operators. That means keeping them on the road for hundreds of thousands of miles to make them economically viable — far above personal cars. As it gets closer to its commercial launch, Waymo wants to show that it’s not taking this challenge lightly.
In charge of the whole operation is Ellice Perez, a former bakery manager who now heads the Alphabet unit’s business in Phoenix. She oversees the fleet’s teams of technicians, dispatchers, and responders, as well as the rider support team, weaving them all together in an intricate ballet of robotic cars and their human helpers.
“It’s kind of like before a plane takes off, there’s a pre-flight check just to make sure that it’s safe and ready to go,” Perez said. “So we do that with our cars. We’ll do some calibrations to our sensors, we check the hardware, we check the software. We might double-check the fluid levels, the tire tread measure, other safety things, and then the cars will be launched and put out on the road.”
Of course, Perez wasn’t hired on her bakery credentials alone. She also spent nearly a decade at Zipcar, where she helped manage the car-sharing company’s operations in Baltimore and Washington, DC. Later she helped launch Zipcar in half a dozen major European markets, including Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Istanbul, Frankfurt, and Brussels. She even logged some time in Taipei. Perez brings her knowledge of fleet operations and management to Waymo, where the company’s success hinges as much on advanced technology as it does on being able to provide clean cars and reliable service to a large pool of customers.
“I have been drinking the Kool-Aid for the last 10 years at Zipcar,” Perez said, “and I believe in a world with more car shares than car owners.”
A day in the life of one of Waymo’s self-driving minivans typically starts around 5AM. That’s when the first “pre-flight check” begins. Waymo builds all of its self-driving sensors in-house, including cameras, radar, and LIDAR. Keeping this hardware in tip-top shape is the job of the company’s fleet technicians, who conduct regular maintenance checks on the self-driving systems.
Next, the dispatchers determine where to send the vehicles based on trip data gathered from the company’s Early Rider program. This determines how long it takes for a Waymo vehicle to respond to a trip request from an Early Rider. “We want to make sure we’re distributing the fleet throughout the territory based on demand,” Perez said.
Waymo still uses backup drivers in most of its trips. So, for now, the minivans return to the depot around midday for shift swaps, so the backup drivers get a break from what can be a fairly mind-numbing task: monitoring a self-driving car. (The issue of safety drivers became a national focus after a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, earlier this year. In the aftermath, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said his vehicles would have stopped in time.)
Throughout the day, Waymo’s engineering team back in Mountain View will send various tests and software iterations for the Phoenix team to then upload into the fleet’s hive brain. These are based on the billions of miles of driving the company is doing in simulation to help supplement its public road tests, as well as structured tests it conducts at its Castle testing facility in Central California.
But computers can’t always come up with every strange real-world scenario or react to real-time construction detours. This is where Waymo’s fleet response team come into play. If the vehicle encounters a complex driving scenario that it struggles to interpret, it automatically calls in the problem to the response team to weigh in with a solution, which is then shared with the rest of the fleet so Waymo’s vehicles can avoid the area if necessary. Those remote operators are based both in Phoenix and Austin, Texas, but they have no direct control over the vehicle’s operations, Perez said; they just serve as an extra set of eyes for difficult-to-navigate scenarios. “The car might see cones up ahead and could ask for context,” she said. “Should I move to another lane? Should I turn ahead? Should I reroute myself?”
A separate team fields rider requests and other feedback, which can come in through Waymo’s app or via an OnStar-like button on the vehicle’s headliner. This comes in handy if a rider is in a fully driverless car and needs help changing their destination or connecting their music to the stereo system. The rider response team also uses cameras installed inside the cars to check the interiors after each trip for forgotten items or spills. This is useful when the vehicle is offering rides late at night to people who are heading home after a few drinks — or more than a few.
Waymo’s Early Rider program recently became a 24/7 operation, in anticipation of the full-service launch. That means more designated driving opportunities for its cars, and more cleanup duties for Waymo’s depot teams. No one has barfed in a Waymo vehicle as of yet, but Perez is prepared for it. “I’ve seen that happen at Zipcar,” she recalled.
Waymo says that it has tested its vehicles in 25 cities in the US, but Phoenix — with its sunny weather and wide roads — has become the locus for the company’s activities. The company has over 600 vehicles on the road, either collecting data or providing rides to its Early Riders. Since October 2017, Waymo has been testing its minivans without human drivers behind the wheel — a service that it occasionally offers to its Early Riders as well.
One of those Early Riders is Lilla Gaffney, a 29-year-old software product manager who lives in the suburbs of Mesa, Arizona. A self-described “tech nerd,” Gaffney remembers eagerly signing up to be an Early Rider a year ago after seeing an advertisement for the program. Since then, she, her husband and his brother have been using Waymo to supplement their daily routine: rides to the gym, to work, and trips to the park or a restaurant on the weekend.
Gaffney says she prefers Waymo to local taxis or ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft because it’s predictable: she always gets the same model vehicle, with the same interior amenities. It’s clean, it’s comfortable, and she enjoys being a guinea pig in a futuristic experimentation. That said, over the course of a year, she has noticed a change in the way the self-driving minivans drive on the road.
“At first the driving was pretty mechanical,” Gaffney told The Verge in an interview set up by Waymo. (Early Riders all have to sign nondisclosure agreements.) “When you think about how you approach a stop sign, the Waymo at first was like, ‘This is how I stop. Now I’m going to go. Nope. I’m going to go. Nope.’ And then it would go.”
But as the cars racked up the miles — Waymo says its vehicles have traveled 8 million miles on public roads — Gaffney said they became more sure of themselves. “It drives the way I drive,” she said. “It’s a very cautious driver.”
If something happens during the course of a ride — a less desirable pickup location or a strange moment of hesitation at an intersection — Gaffney said she is able to provide context through Waymo’s feedback system to help fill in the blanks in the data recorded by the vehicle’s many sensors. And as the vehicle’s performance improves, Gaffney said she has almost completely replaced taxis or ride-hailing with the self-driving minivans.
Waymo hasn’t dramatically altered Gaffney’s life. The cars are only able to operate within a specific geofenced area in Phoenix (the size of which Waymo declined to disclose, but is larger than 100 square miles). Gaffney, her husband, and brother-in-law each still have their personal vehicles for trips outside of Waymo’s service area. And she can’t see herself getting rid of her Kia Rio anytime soon. Not that she wouldn’t love to.
“Let me put it this way: If I could take a Waymo from Phoenix to Las Vegas,” she said, “I would do that every time.”
Enthusiasm like Gaffney’s will be crucial if Waymo hopes to eventually make money for its parent company, Alphabet. Ever since the fatal Uber crash, Americans have grown more skeptical about self-driving cars, and express more hesitation about riding in them than before the crash, according to the Pew Research Center. Still, expectations are sky-high for the company’s profit-making ability. The big banks are already going hog-wild in their predictions for Waymo’s future.
Investment bank UBS estimated global revenues from self-driving technology by 2030 will be up to $2.8 trillion, with Waymo capturing $114 billion of that total. Morgan Stanley recently upped its valuation of Waymo to a staggering $175 billion, $80 billion of which is expected to come from the company’s ride-hailing services. Under CEO John Krafcik, the former Google self-driving team has evolved from a humble science project to a fully formed company with four specific targets to deploy its technology: ride-hailing, logistics, privately owned vehicles, and public transportation.
For its robot taxi service, the company has reached deals to buy up to 62,000 plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans and 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs to build up its fleet over the next few years. Its first market will be Phoenix, with subsequent launches likely in test cities like Mountain View, San Francisco, Detroit, and Atlanta.
Waymo is also planning on launching a self-driving trucking service. It has outfitted several Peterbilt Class 8 semi trucks with autonomous hardware and software, which are currently hauling equipment to Alphabet facilities in Atlanta. Waymo is also in talks with Honda to co-create a self-driving delivery vehicle from scratch.
Until recently, Waymo has spoken only vaguely about licensing its self-driving hardware and software to automakers. But then in May, it announced it was in talks with Fiat Chrysler about developing self-driving cars you could buy at a dealership. Krafcik has said that Waymo is also in discussions with “more than 50 percent” of the global auto industry, and the introduction of self-driving cars for personal use will trail its ride-hailing service by “a couple years.”
The ride-hailing service in Phoenix will be the company’s big public debut, and the litmus test for everyone involved in developing, testing, and marketing self-driving technology. But Waymo isn’t a ride-hailing company like Uber or Lyft, or even a fleet management company like Zipcar. It’s a tech company, and it’s about to step into completely unknown territory.
“I think Waymo is about as well prepared as it could be at this point,” said Carlton Doty, vice president for emerging technology research at Forrester. “But scalable commercial success has less to do with Waymo’s technology and tests, and more to do with the other stakeholders in the ecosystem on which any autonomous vehicle service will depend.”
To help accelerate its plan to fuse its technology into people’s everyday lives, Waymo has partnered with a number of local entities for ride services, including hotels, shopping malls, the region’s public transportation system, and Walmart. It is also teaming up with Avis, which will send Waymo cars to pick up and drop off customers who are renting vehicles from its two locations in Chandler, and AutoNation, the nation’s largest auto retailer.
That’s building on a previous deal Waymo struck with Avis and AutoNation to clean and service its fleet of self-driving minivans. So while Waymo’s team of technicians handle the software updates and sensor calibrations, Avis’ employees handle the oil checks, tire rotations, and other tasks. But the 72-year-old car rental company sees its role as bigger than just a glorified car wash for Waymo’s robot taxis. For Avis, this is an opportunity to hedge its bets against big changes in the future.
“It really wasn’t just about, ‘Oh we want to clean Waymo’s cars,’” said Arthur Orduna, chief innovation officer at Avis. “It was really about, ‘Okay, let’s find a partner where we can provide some immediate value to them today and at the scale that they have today, which obviously isn’t huge yet.’ But in the course of providing that we’re going to learn about how we can start evolving our business, our operations, our practices for self-driving cars.”
Keeping the cars clean is especially challenging in a desert environment like Phoenix. The region’s dust storms, known as “haboobs,” can be cinematic like Mad Max: Fury Road, but can also render a self-driving cars’ sensors inoperable. Photos of an early August haboob showing a massive wall of dust bearing down on Phoenix briefly went viral. Perez said that Waymo follows the general guidance for all vehicles on the road during these storms, which is to pull over to the side of the road.
A bigger challenge than the haboobs, though, may be sustaining demand. The cars will certainly attract their share of early adopters after the initial launch. But what happens a couple weeks in, after the novelty fades? How can Waymo create a service that’s as convenient, or more so, than Uber or Lyft?
Flooding the zone with cars is one solution, but that may draw the ire from those residents who think more cars — human- and robot-powered alike — are no solution at all. Removing human monitors from the equation to drive down the per-mile cost is another possible strategy, to ensure that Waymo will always be the cheapest ride.
Fortunately, none of this is in Perez’s job description, so she can keep her focus on the daily shifts and rotations at the Phoenix depot. But that doesn’t mean those challenges don’t cross her mind. In addition to running the show, she’s also a Waymo user herself. She doesn’t own a car, instead using the company’s vehicles for trips to the train station (when she’s in California) or to her favorite frozen yogurt shop in Phoenix.
“I’ve done fully driverless in Phoenix as well a few times, and it’s pretty normal,” she said matter-of-factly. “It just works.”
Updated February 5, 2020, 1:29PM ET: Waymo’s facility in Chandler is 60,000-square feet. A previous version of this story had that number incorrect.