Sun 10 Mar 2019
In the manicured grounds of a public library in Chandler, Arizona, Liisa Walimaa is waiting for a robot to take her to Macy’s.
For a year Walimaa has been a participantin a closely guarded experiment being run by Waymo, a division of Alphabet (née Google), in this suburb of Phoenix that could change the face of global transportation on a scale unseen since we ditched horses for cars.
Automated vehicles offer the promise of fewer road fatalities, cheaper rides and greater mobility for the blind and otherwise disabled. They could also cost millions of jobs, threaten public transport spending and upend insurance. Technology companies may love to talk about “disruption”, but what is happening in Chandler is genuinely worthy of the word.
There have been setbacks (there will be more) and progress has been slower than first promised, but Walimaa thinks that in five or 10 years, autonomous vehicles will be as viable an option as taking a bike, calling a regular taxi or using your own car. Right now, she knows which she prefers.
“I’m so done with driving,” says Walimaa, a British-born writer and yoga teacher. “I love my car, but I don’t want to drive it any more.”
Walimaa is one ofabout 400 people who successfully applied to be in the Waymo early rider programme. Until now they have not been allowed to speak to the press.
“I am always more confident in a Waymo than I am in an Uber,” says Walimaa in her first interview on her experience. “Because I know it is going to be consistent. I do think it’s safer.” Last time she took an Uber to the airport, she says, the driver was texting on the freeway as they drove. “In rush hour. It was terrifying.”