Anthropologists are typically students of the past, studying how human interactions created a culture, what those cultures contributed to society, and how those societies impacted the world. But in its characteristically forward-thinking fashion, Google has flipped that concept on its head.
For the past year, the search engine behemoth—through its sister company, Waymo—has attempted to infer the shape of the future by observing how humans interact with present-day technology.
To get an idea of how we’ll arrive at that big picture, Waymo has drilled down to the details of the day-to-day.
Last April, the company launched an “Early Rider Program” in Phoenix, putting the futuristic rides at the beck and call of 400 volunteers who could use the cars whenever—and however—they wanted.
And with more than a year in the books, some patterns are starting to emerge, and Waymo is using what it has learned to move away from guessing about the future—and toward actively engineering it.
The World’s Most Experienced Chauffeur
With its autonomous autos logging more than 24,000 test miles—or the equivalent of a trip around the world—every day, Waymo already knows a lot about what the cars think of the road. But to more seamlessly integrate that technology into society, the company needs more information on what people think of the cars.
The 400 volunteers it chose—out of more than 20,000 applicants—represent a broad cross-section of the population ranging from age 9 to 69.
And their use of the vehicles has been equally as varied, with volunteers reporting the time spent away from the steering wheel being utilized for everything from finishing calculus homework to taking a nap.
The number one use for the cars was getting to and from work; trips to and from school rounded out the top 3.
“I notice a lot of things when I’m driving along that I haven’t really noticed before, because you’re always focused on the road,” one participant, named Barbara, noted in a promotional video posted on the company’s blog. “I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years. I wouldn’t have thought I would miss so much.”
For its part, Waymo says its mission is building the “world’s most experienced driver”. In many ways, it seems the early riders want the same thing.
The group has overwhelmingly used the fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans at their disposal to stand in for a personal chauffeur.
Of the top 10 activities Waymo reported its early riders using the cars for, running errands made up half the list, with volunteers asking the vehicles to whisk them away to retail stores, supermarkets, salons, electronics stores, and the gym.
The number one use for the cars, however, was getting to and from work; getting to and from school was the third-most popular reason to hop in the autonomous ride. But participants also liked using the vehicles to facilitate play, with restaurants and bars rounding out the top four most popular uses.
And many clever volunteers utilized the driver-free vehicles to get to vehicle repair shops, with mechanics coming in as the fifth-most-popular destination for riders.
But for Waymo, the information isn’t just educational—it’s proven to be inspirational.
Building the Future
With riders’ intentions becoming clearer, Waymo is already starting to address those desires.
The company has been busily putting together contracts to connect its autonomous car program with companies representing the most common destinations of its volunteers.
One of the first of such partnerships was announced earlier this summer when Waymo touted a joint program it would be launching with Walmart in Arizona. Early riders who ordered from the retail giant online would receive a discount at the store when they used a Waymo vehicle to go pick up their items.
The company has also expanded upon its relationship with car rental company Avis, facilitating rides to volunteers on their way to pick up or drop off a rental car from the agency.
And the Silicon Valley giant has also firmed up a contract with AutoNation, with the car repair company able to offer some customers a Waymo autonomous car as a loaner while their personal vehicles get fixed.
All told, Waymo has reportedly shored up connections that focus on 8 of the top 10 uses for its autonomous fleet. And with each of the companies offering locations nationwide, the road ahead for Waymo is already stretching far into the future.