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How Waymo's self-driving cars could change Los Angeles| GuyWhoKnowsThings


Los Angeles, for drivers, has never been for the faint of heart. A land where most cannot imagine life without wheels offers a daily parade of frustration: congestion, accidents, construction, road rage, tedium.

Every transplant has a story about learning to adapt.

“You get into the rhythm of matching other people's energy,” said Tamara Siemering, 30, an actress who moved from Sacramento a year ago. The difference in car culture here, she said, is huge.

“It feels very self-centered,” he said. “Everyone says, 'I have somewhere to be, out of my way.' There isn't much cooperative driving; “There is a lot of honking at each other and speeding and acceleration.”

Now a completely new type of motorist is joining the fray: one who promotes himself as measured and unemotional, respectful and obedient. That is, there is no controller.

Waymo, a fleet of self-driving taxis already operating in San Francisco and Phoenix, has begun transporting passengers across a small swath of Los Angeles County. The white Jaguar sport utility vehicles, notable for their rotating black domes covering an array of cameras and sensors, have been cleared for commercial travel, with free rides available to a select few. It will soon offer a paid service with prices comparable to those charged by Uber and Lyft.

Waymo, owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company, calls its self-driving vehicles “the most experienced drivers in the world.” There is already a list of 50,000 people waiting for the opportunity to set one up in Los Angeles. For some, the intrigue is the technology. Others are drawn to the idea of ​​avoiding small talk and the pressure to tip.

Still, civic leaders have protested Waymo's arrival, warning of safety risks, while unions fear how it could affect jobs in an already saturated market. And many residents aren't so sure about trusting an empty driver's seat.

Mrs. Siemering is among them. She wants to know more about how robot cars navigate the city's intense car culture before she hops in one.

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

Waymo's footprint will, at first, be small. With fewer than 50 cars, its territory is limited to about 63 square miles, stretching from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. For now, it will not operate at the airport and its cars will not circulate on the highways that are common in the region.

The company recognizes those drawbacks but wants to think about expansion while serving those who need rides close to home, said Chris Ludwick, Waymo's director of product management. He hopes nervous drivers will soon learn that there are few experiences quite like being driven completely alone in a luxury car.

“Having your own space that you can control feels magical,” Ludwick said. “You can play whatever music you want, you can change the temperature. It's your space. “You can be whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do.”

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

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

It cited numerous problems in San Francisco, including cases where vehicles ignoring yellow emergency tape and warning signs, entering an active fire scene and parking on top of the fire hose, contributed to the death of a person. when blocking an ambulance and dragging a pedestrian. 20 feet. Some of the most troubling incidents involved Cruise, an autonomous vehicle company that was ordered by state regulators in October to stop its taxi service.

But dozens of groups supported Waymo's expansion into Los Angeles when the public utilities commission weighed its decision this year. Among them were disability rights organizations that argued that self-driving taxis give their constituents the freedom to travel without having to rely on other people.

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

Waymo, which began hosting pop-up tours in Los Angeles in October, received approval earlier this month for its broader launch. It also plans to offer service in San Mateo County, which is located in Northern California, and Austin, Texas.

Unions and workers fear the arrival of autonomous vehicles will threaten livelihoods and put even more pressure on drivers, who they say are already suffering from inflation, high gas prices and low pay.

“We have to work twice as many hours to make the same amount of income while we watch robots take over the industry,” said Nicole Moore, president of Rideshare Drivers United, an organization of 20,000 drivers in California.

Many ride-hailing drivers see the industry moving to computers one day. But some also share a collective smile. Good luck, they say, navigating the quirks of pickups and drop-offs.

Passengers have unknowingly been coddled by ride-sharing customs that suit their needs and violate the rules. That means you can stand wherever you want and wait for your car to show up. Those in a hurry can request to step on the accelerator. And alternative routes can be suggested.

“Waymo will go over the speed limit, they won't pick you up on red sidewalks, fire hydrants or bus zones; they'll make you walk to your car,” said Sergio Avedian, who drives for Uber in Los Angeles. and contributes to The Rideshare Guy, a website for gig drivers.

“If I drop someone off in Hollywood at 1 in the morning, I double park, if not triple park, because there are a million people there,” he said.

Mr. Avedian rode in a Waymo car a few weeks ago and was impressed with the ride quality. But he saw how passengers could be bothered by his code that could force him to avoid a construction zone and park two blocks away.

And while Waymo has a devoted following in Phoenix and San Francisco, some worry it may not be a good fit for a city where about 340 people died in traffic incidents in 2023. It was the first time in nine years that traffic-related deaths traffic exceeded homicides.

“I don't trust something that weighs 4,000 pounds and goes 60 miles per hour,” said Jim Honeycutt, a construction manager working on the construction of several Los Angeles Metro stations.

Honeycutt, 75, doesn't believe in the idea that software can make better decisions where humans might make mistakes. “Because,” he said, “humans invented computers.”


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