When there's no one behind the wheel in car crazy Los Angeles


Los Angeles has never been for the faint of heart for drivers. A land where most people can't imagine life without wheels, it presents a daily parade of disappointments: congestion, accidents, construction, road rage, dullness.

Every transplant has a story of learning adaptation.

“You get into a rhythm of matching everyone's energy,” said Tamara Siemering, a 30-year-old actress who moved from Sacramento a year ago. The difference in car culture here is wild, he said.

“It feels very self-centered,” she said. “Everyone is like, 'I have to stay out of my way somewhere.' There's not a lot of collaborative driving – a lot of honking at each other and driving fast and swerving around.”

Now a whole new kind of motorist is joining the fight – one who describes himself as measured and unemotional, respectful and obedient. What this means is that there is no driver here.

Waymo, a fleet of autonomous taxis that already operates in San Francisco and Phoenix, has started carrying passengers in a small part of Los Angeles County. The white Jaguar sport utility vehicles – notable for their rotating black domes that cover numerous cameras and sensors – have been approved for commercial rides, with free trips available to a select few. It will soon offer a paid service with prices comparable to those charged by Uber and Lyft.

Owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet, Waymo bills its autonomous vehicles as “the world's most experienced drivers.” There's already a list of 50,000 people waiting for a chance to ride in Los Angeles. For some people, the intrigue is the technology. Others are attracted to the idea of ​​avoiding small talk and the pressure of tipping.

Still, civic leaders have opposed Waymo's arrival, warning of security risks, while labor unions are wary of how it could affect jobs in an already saturated market. And many residents aren't so sure they'd trust an empty driver's seat.

Ms. Siemering is one of them. She wants to hear more about how robot cars are driving the city's intense car culture before jumping aboard herself.

“It's a little sketchy – I want to wait and see how it goes,” she said. “I really don't want to be the test, guinea pig.” His own 1996 Ford Taurus was in a fender bender in January. But she plans to hop on the bus or rely on the human drivers of Uber and Lyft to get to her day job as a bartender at a caviar bar in West Hollywood.

Waymo's footprint, at first, will be small. With fewer than 50 cars, its area is limited to about 63 square miles, stretching from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles. For now, it will not operate at airports, and its cars do not travel on the freeways that feature such facilities in the region.

Chris Ludwick, Waymo's director of product management, said the company recognizes those shortcomings but wants to be thoughtful about expansion while serving people who need rides close to home. He hopes nervous riders will soon discover that there are few experiences similar to driving completely alone in a luxury car.

“Having your own space that you can control feels magical,” Mr. Ludwick said. “You can put on any music you want, you can change the temperature. This is your place. You can be who you want to be, do what you want to do.”

He said safety is at the forefront of the company's efforts. “We take our driving behavior extremely seriously,” Mr Ludwick said.

Last fall, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass sent a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission insisting that autonomous vehicles need more testing and that local jurisdictions should have more agency over them.

He cited several issues in San Francisco, including instances where vehicles ignored yellow emergency tape and warning signs, entered an active fire scene and parked above a fire hose, blocking an ambulance. Contributed to the death of one person by blocking, and struck a pedestrian. 20 feet. One of the most troubling incidents involves autonomous vehicle company Cruise, which was ordered by state regulators to shut down its taxi service in October.

But when the utility commission considered its decision this year, dozens of groups supported Waymo's expansion to Los Angeles. They also included disability rights organizations who argued that autonomous taxis give their constituents the freedom to travel without relying on other people.

Mark A. Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote to the commission, “This fulfills the dream of countless blind Americans to have complete autonomy over our transportation in the same way that every other citizen has a driver's license.” february.

Waymo, which began hosting pop-up tours in Los Angeles in October, was approved earlier this month for its broader rollout. It also plans to serve San Mateo County, which is in Northern California, and Austin, Texas.

Labor unions and workers fear that the advent of autonomous vehicles threatens livelihoods and will put even more pressure on drivers, who they say are already suffering from inflation, high gas prices and low compensation.

“We're having to work twice as many hours to make the same income while we're watching robots take over the industry,” said Nicole Moore, president of Rideshare Drivers United, an organization of 20,000 drivers across California.

Many drivers of ride-hailing services see one day shifting the industry to computers. But some people are also sharing a collective smile. Good luck handling the quirks of pickup and drop-off, they say.

Passengers have unknowingly been pampered with ride-share customs that adjust to their needs and bend the rules. This means you can stand wherever you want and expect your car to appear. Those who are in a hurry can request to step on the gas. And alternative routes can be suggested.

“Waymo is going to let you go over the speed limit, it won't take you to the red curb or fire hydrant or bus zone — they'll let you walk to the car,” said Sergio Avedian, who drives for Uber in Los Angeles. and contributes to The Rideshare Guy, a website for gig drivers.

He said, “If I'm dropping off at 1 a.m. in Hollywood, I'll be double-parked, if not triple-parked, because there's a million people there.”

Mr. Avedian rode in a Waymo car a few weeks ago and came away impressed by the quality of the driving. But he saw how commuters might be annoyed by its code that might force it to avoid the construction zone and park two blocks away.

And though Waymo has dedicated fans in Phoenix and San Francisco, some worry it's not a good fit for a city where nearly 340 people were killed in traffic incidents in 2023. It was the first time in nine years that traffic-related deaths exceeded homicides.

Jim Honeycutt, a construction manager who worked on the construction of several Los Angeles Metro stations, said, “I wouldn't trust them on something weighing 4,000 pounds going 60 miles per hour.”

Mr Honeycutt, 75, does not subscribe to the idea that software can make better decisions where humans can make mistakes. “Because,” he said, “man invented the computer.”


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