Like jumbo jets for Gen X and cellphones for Millennials, autonomous vehicles will be for today’s children (sometimes called Generation Alpha) a technology at once novel and perfectly normal. Revolutionary though all of these technologies have been at introduction, to people who cannot remember a time before their arrival, they are fixtures, if still impressive ones.
As I buckled my toddler son into a Waymo autonomous taxi in Los Angeles on a Saturday in early October, we shared a palpable excitement. It’s a moment that I will cherish but that he will hardly remember by next spring. Our family will probably own a car of the regular sort for his whole childhood, but cars on the road without human drivers will become increasingly commonplace. My son and his age cohort will view the time before cars could operate on their own as part of transportation’s grainy past.
Earlier that day, I tried to impress upon him the magnitude of this event. “We’re doing something special this afternoon: we’re going to ride in an autonomous vehicle,” I said, but to little effect. Realizing the linguistic challenge, I searched for words with more meaning for a lad of two.
“It’s a robot car.” His eyes widened. Success! This was what we would call these strange machines henceforth.
The car approached from behind me, its electric motor emitting just a quiet whirr. Having strategically hailed the car on a safe, low-traffic residential street, I anchored the car seat, secured my child, and took my place next to him in the car’s backseat, with a friend sitting up front. We touched the “start ride” button—and were off.
As we rode around Los Angeles’s West Side, my toddler’s commentary proved as interesting as the car’s movements.
“Where is the robot?”
Drat. Perhaps my perfect phrase was not so perfect after all.
“The car is the robot,” I said. “We are inside of the robot right now.”
“Where are the robot’s eyes?”
“Look above you, through the sunroof. That’s called LIDAR. It is the robot car’s version of eyes.”
“Where is its nose?”
“The nose? You can call the front of the car the nose.”
“Where are its feet?”
“Its feet are the wheels.”
As this conversation unfolded, the Waymo worked its magic, weaving us toward the Santa Monica doughnut shop I had selected as our destination. The ride itself proved uneventful—besides the shocking fact that we were being ferried autonomously. In fact, the ride was indistinguishable from one we might have taken with a human taxi or Uber driver. That the driving style was so human-like came as the biggest surprise. Having written extensively on this topic and followed autonomous-vehicle developments closely, I expected certain roadway scenarios to prompt responses from the car reflecting the abundance-of-caution programming that some riders and road-users complain about. Based on my Waymo experience in L.A., however, these cars seem more attuned to local norms than detractors allege.
At three points along our eight miles of urban riding, the car’s performance was at odds with my expectations. The first instance involved a person walking out of a storefront, across the sidewalk, and around the front of her street-parked car. Seeing this unfold from 100 feet off, I expected the robot car’s driving system to bring the vehicle to a halt, allowing the person to open her door and enter before the car would continue. Instead, the car merely slowed and performed a partial lane change, giving the woman requisite space before reclaiming its initial lane, without stopping. Operating at or below the speed limit allowed the Waymo to conduct this simple, human-like maneuver without difficulty or undue risk.
The second episode involved an unprotected left turn onto Wilshire Boulevard at a more congested intersection. The car again inched forward and, at an opportune moment, executed the unprotected left. Though it did not need to accelerate rapidly and did not seem to disrupt any cars coming in our direction (and possessing the right of way), I was genuinely surprised by its decision to turn at the moment that it chose, figuring that it would be more hesitant.
The third and final instance involved our drop-off. Having chosen a destination (the doughnut shop) located on a busy thoroughfare with clogged street parking, I knew that this would be an interesting test. One possibility I imagined involved the vehicle navigating away from the shop’s immediate location to find an open parking spot, or to the shop’s parking lot in the back; or maybe it would circle the block indefinitely.
The car defied my speculations, however, and did precisely what I would have asked a human taxi driver to do: it angled itself between a parked car on Wilshire and a large construction dumpster at the curb, coming to a stop perpendicular to (and fully blocking) an alley entrance, letting us out just steps from the doughnut shop’s front door. Though I don’t know the California motor-vehicle handbook front to back, this improvised, human-like action felt like an unexpected robot-car rebellion. Being the roadway-safety nut that I am, I was not entirely thrilled with the move. For most riders, though, this accommodation to local conditions will be seen as a feature, not a bug.
Reflecting on the ride and on the future of the technology, I feel some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the experience was momentous—my first use of a now-commercial technology that could upend transportation as we know it. On the other, the adventure proved largely mundane. The robot car performed its core functions indistinguishably from a taxi or Uber. For my son, of course, no such dissonance will present itself. The robot car will seem as normal a part of daily life to him as the laptop and the iPhone are to us now. Such exposure will doubtless erode the opposition to autonomous vehicles that we see in polling data today. As it has with other technologies, cohort replacement will ensure that, a few decades from now (or less), the robot cars that today’s kids grow up with will be commonplace.
Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images