When Nobody Is Behind the Wheel in Car-Obsessed Los Angeles

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

Every transplant has a story about learning to adapt.

“You get in the rhythm of matching everyone else’s energy,” said Tamara Siemering, 30, an actor who relocated from Sacramento a year ago. The difference in car culture here, she said, is wild.

“It feels very self-centered,” she said. “Everyone is like, ‘I’ve got somewhere to be, out of my way.’ There’s not a lot of cooperative driving — there’s a lot of honking at each other and speeding and zooming around.”

Now joining the fray is an entirely new type of motorist — one that touts itself as measured and unemotional, respectful and obedient. Which is to say, there is no driver at all.

Waymo, a fleet of autonomous taxis that is already operating in San Francisco and Phoenix, has begun carrying passengers across a small swath of Los Angeles County. The white Jaguar sport utility vehicles — notable for their spinning black domes that cover an array of cameras and sensors — have been cleared 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 Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Waymo bills its autonomous vehicles as “the world’s most experienced drivers.” There is already a list of 50,000 people waiting for a chance to ride one 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 labor unions are wary of how it might affect jobs in an already saturated market. And many residents are not so sure they would trust an empty driver’s seat.

Ms. Siemering is among them. She wants to hear more about how robot cars are navigating the city’s intense car culture before hopping in one herself.

“It’s a little sketchy — I want to wait and see how it plays out,” she said. “I don’t really want to be the test, the guinea pig.” Her own 1996 Ford Taurus was in a fender bender in January. But she plans to stick to 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 will, at first, be tiny. With fewer than 50 cars, its territory is limited to about 63 square miles, extending from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. For now, it will not operate at the airport, and its cars do not travel on the freeways that are such fixtures in the region.

The company recognizes those drawbacks but wants to be thoughtful about expansion while serving those who need rides close to home, said Chris Ludwick, the director of product management for Waymo. He hopes that nervous riders soon learn there are few experiences similar to being chauffeured entirely alone in a luxury car.

“Having your own space that you can control feels kind of magical,” Mr. Ludwick said. “You can put on any music you want, you can change the temperature. It’s your space. You can be what you want to be, do what you want to do.”

He added that safety is at the forefront of the company’s endeavors. “We take our driving behavior extremely seriously,” Mr. 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 agency over them.

She cited numerous issues in San Francisco, including instances where vehicles ignored yellow emergency tape and warning signs, entered an active fire scene and parked on top of the fire hose, contributed to the death of a person by blocking an ambulance, and dragged 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 to Los Angeles when the utilities commission weighed its decision this year. Among them were disability rights organizations that argued that autonomous taxis give their constituents the freedom to travel without having to rely on other people.

“This fulfills the dreams of countless blind Americans to have full autonomy over our transportation in the same manner as every other citizen who has a driver’s license,” 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, was approved earlier this month for its wider rollout. It also has plans to offer service in San Mateo County, which is in Northern California, and in Austin, Texas.

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

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

Many drivers for ride-hailing services do see the industry shifting to computers one day. But some are also sharing a collective smirk. Good luck, they say, handling the quirks of pickups and drop-offs.

Passengers have been unknowingly pampered by ride-share customs that adjust to their needs and bend the rules. That means you can stand wherever you like and expect your car to appear. Those in a hurry can request stepping on the gas. And alternate routes can be suggested.

“Waymo’s going to go the speed limit, it’s not going to pick you up at red curbs or fire hydrants or bus zones — they’re going to make 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.

“If I’m doing drop-off in Hollywood at 1 in the morning, I’m double-parked, if not triple-parked, because there’s a million people there,” he said.

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

And although Waymo has devoted fans in Phoenix and San Francisco, some worry it is not 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 outnumbered homicides.

“I don’t trust them in something weighing 4,000 pounds going 60 miles per hour,” said Jim Honeycutt, a construction manager working on the building of several Los Angeles Metro stations.

Mr. Honeycutt, 75, does not buy the idea that software could make better decisions where humans might err. “Because,” he said, “humans invented computers.”


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