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How Waymo is designing the self-driving car passenger experience to feel convenient and safe

Here’s a sense of today’s self-driving ride.

Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica drives on a road with other cars in the background.
Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica.

As Waymo and its many rivals prepare to roll out driverless cars to consumers, one of their challenges has been to design an experience for riders that feels both convenient and safe.

For a sense of the state of the art, it’s worth flipping through this new 43-page safety report (pdf) from Waymo, the self-driving tech subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet. In April, the company announced it would be testing a fleet of 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix, Ariz. Waymo is also operating its cars — which include 70 Lexus SUVs — on public roads in Washington, Texas, and California.

Getting a ride and starting off

Waymo’s test cars are being run as an on-demand service, which riders can hail through a mobile app. After getting seated, passengers start the ride by pressing a “start ride” button. It’s a small but sensible nuance that gives passengers some level of control over the ride, allowing them to ensure they’re settled and ready before the driverless car starts moving.

Seeing what the car sees

During the course of the ride, the in-car display will show passengers pertinent information like their route and expected time of arrival. But it will also show them what the car is seeing with its visual system, including its camera and other sensors like lidar and radar. This is designed to be comforting and educational — so “riders can understand what the vehicle is perceiving and responding to, and be confident in the vehicle’s capabilities.”

An illustration of Alphabet’s self-driving cars. 	Waymo

Controlling the ride

The whole point of a self-driving car is that it drives itself. But Waymo has outfitted its cars with a “pull over” button, which identifies the first safe place to pull over so riders can exit. Another button can reach Waymo’s rider support team to answer questions or help out.

Handling unsafe conditions or an accident

The car will find a way to come to a safe stop if it detects unsafe driving conditions. In the rare occurrence of an accident, the car will also communicate instructions using audio and visual cues.


Autonomous vehicles hold a great deal of promise for people with disabilities. So Alphabet is designing its cars with that in mind. For example, Waymo is taking advantage of accessibility features built into Android and iOS that replace visual controls with speech controls. In addition to labeling the “start ride” and other buttons with Braille, Alphabet is experimenting with so-called “wayfinding” features, which help visually impaired passengers find their cars by making a guiding sound.

The big picture

When designing the human-car interface and experience, Waymo says it has four main goals:

  • Giving passengers the information they need for a seamless trip.
  • Helping passengers anticipate what’s next.
  • Proactively communicating the vehicle’s response to events on the road.
  • Helping passengers engage safely with the vehicle.

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