• Unlike other hyped-up tech, self-driving taxis look like they could be the real thing.
  • You can take Waymo's software-powered taxis in San Francisco and Phoenix right now. They work just like an Uber.
  • Waymo's robot taxis aren't perfect and there are very reasonable concerns about them. But also: They're self-driving taxis that really work!

It's easy to crap on tech. We — I — do it all the time.

Sometimes, it's because tech doesn't work the way I want it to. Sometimes, it's schadenfreude about a big hyped thing that falls flat. Sometimes, it's just a sense that the tech we all depend on may be harming us in ways we don't understand and can't control.

But also: Sometimes tech reminds you that tech can be awesome, in the golly-gee-can-you-believe-it sense some of us used to have about this stuff.

Which is exactly how I felt after my last trip to San Francisco, when I took several rides in Waymo's robotaxis.

That's partly because the tech is … amazing. You really are in a car, driving around the city, with no one in the driver's seat. Software and sensors take care of everything.

And partly because the tech already seems so … normal. You order a Waymo via an app, just like an Uber or Lyft. It shows up, you get in, it takes you where you want to go, and you get out.

Yes, my 13-year-old son and I spent the first few minutes in our first Waymo texting our friends and family: OMG IM IN A SELF DRIVING TAXI. We also documented it on social, of course.

We also felt a bit of the trepidatious rush you get when you first sit down in a roller coaster and have that internal debate: Is this safe? It must be safe because otherwise, they wouldn't let you do it, right? But seriously, is this safe?

But after those first few minutes of novelty, we went back to doing what we always do in an Uber or a Lyft: zoning out on our phones, staring out the window, and spending next-to-no time thinking about who, or what, was driving us.

Which, to me, is really the most amazing part: This stuff is here, now, and you can … just use it.

At least some people can. Waymo, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has a couple hundred self-driving cars roaming around San Francisco, and access is still limited there via a waiting list, as well as geography. You can't get a Waymo to pick you up at the San Francisco International Airport, for instance, or take you across the Bay Bridge to Oakland.

In Phoenix, where Waymo first launched consumer access, it has about the same number of cars, but no waiting list. And now it is starting to roll out in Los Angeles and Austin.

We've heard about self-driving taxis forever, but they're just starting to become a reality.

So, while Waymo says it drives tens of thousands of trips per week, even the most tech-savvy people I talk to have yet to ride in one.

And it's reasonable to have concerns about this tech as it rolls out. Waymo rival Cruise halted its service last fall after a slew of incidents, including a grisly one where a self-driving Cruise dragged a pedestrian who had been hit by a human-driven car.

Self-driving tech is also an obvious problem for humans who depend on ride-hailing services to make a living. (On my previous trip to San Francisco, one of my Uber drivers told me he had previously been a recruiter at Amazon who had lost his job during one of Amazon's recent layoff rounds.)

And to be honest, I'm not even sure that I would always order a Waymo if I had a chance. Right now, beyond the novelty, the big upside for me is that the fleet's cars — electric Jaguars — are comfortable and clean. And that the per-trip cost is about the same as an Uber Comfort (one level up from the base Uber X fare) — but really a bit cheaper, since you're not tipping your robot driver.

Waymo self-driving taxis are kitted out with cameras and other sensors, like this Jaguar model crossing an intersection in San Francisco. Foto: JASON HENRY/Getty Images

But there's no reason to believe the cars will remain pristine, and that pricing will stay low, as this stuff rolls out more broadly. (Waymo doesn't disclose financials, and the company wouldn't tell me if it's making money on each trip. I assume it does not, for now; we do know Waymo has invested billions in this project since it started out as a Google project in 2009.)

Still, I can think of all kinds of uses for Waymo — right now. Like using it for food delivery — which is happening in Phoenix, via Uber Eats. Maybe it's for people who believe a robot is more reliable than a human driver — at least we know a Waymo won't watch TikTok while driving on the highway like a Lyft driver did when I was in their back seat a couple of years ago.

Or maybe it's simply for people who would rather not interact with another human when they're in a taxi. Which is what David Margines, Waymo's director of product management, says is the service's chief appeal for customers right now. "It's their own space," he says.

Waymo's self-driving cars aren't perfect

Yes, there are still some issues with Waymo, at least in the rides I took recently. One is simply figuring out how to get in the thing: When your Waymo arrives, you unlock its doors with your phone — but only once it has driven to a very precise location that Waymo knows, and you don't.

Which led, a couple different times, to some awkward slow dancing between myself and the robot car. It would stop when I got near but wouldn't let me in because it wasn't exactly where it was supposed to be. Then I'd step away, and then it would lurch forward toward its still-unknown-to-me target spot. Then I'd step forward and it would stop — but still wouldn't let me in.

On one of my trips, this happened on a particularly tight, winding San Francisco street. And as my Waymo and I negotiated with each other we ended up blocking multiple cars, including a minivan driver who started honking at us in frustration.

"You can't honk at a robot," I told her, not very helpfully. "It doesn't care."

Meanwhile, a guy walking by stopped and took out his phone to record the scene. "You can put a cone on it to disable it," he told me, unprompted. Apparently, he's right?

A self-driving Waymo taxi makes its way through Los Angeles. Foto: Mario Tama/Getty Images

More worrisome to me was that on one of my trips — to a Warriors game at the Chase Center arena — at a busy intersection, a Waymo in front of us wouldn't respond to a traffic cop trying to wave it through a red light. Then another Waymo pulled up beside it and also didn't respond to the cop. So now three Waymos were sitting there, blocking traffic and waiting for the light. The traffic cop stopped trying to move us and just held his hands over his head in disgust.

I figured this was a well-known and understandable problem for Waymos — of course, their software and sensors won't respond to humans telling them to override traffic signals! Think of the problems that could cause!

But Margines told me that Waymos are, in fact, supposed to understand human signals like a traffic cop. A Waymo PR person sent me this clip from Waymo CEO Dmitri Dolgov, showing a Waymo doing just that:

But unlike other Big New Tech innovations I've seen in the past — anyone still have a 3D TV in their living room? — I don't think self-driving tech is going away. I think the people behind the tech will figure out its possibilities, its limitations, and the places it does and doesn't make sense.

Meanwhile Cruise is starting up again, but this time with humans in the driver's seat. Elon Musk promises to unveil his robotaxi this summer, and while your doubt about anything Musk says is well-warranted, you never know. So I think that one way or another, we are going to make some version of this standard for many of us in the not-far-off future.

Is that great? I don't know. But it really is amazing.

Read the original article on Business Insider