CHANDLER, Ariz. — On a trip that bore some resemblance to a trans-Atlantic red-eye, I stared out the window and watched the city pass by. A touch screen perched on the seat back illuminated an otherwise darkened cabin. An engine's hum provided a steady soundtrack. And a machine I had no direct control over carried me through the night.
There was even an occasional voice that reminded me to buckle my seat belt and to collect my belongings.
But this was no aircraft. It was a Chrysler Pacifica equipped with a self-driving system made by Waymo, the Google subsidiary that started commercializing this groundbreaking technology more than three years ago within a 50-square-mile swath of suburban Phoenix.
With Chinese companies launching robotaxis in China and North American competitors gearing up, it felt like the right time to visit metro Phoenix for a firsthand look at how standard-bearer Waymo has evolved since service began, how robotaxis without human safety backups function in commercial operation and how Waymo's massive ambitions have squared with industrywide headwinds for self-driving technology.
My first ride picked me up within a dozen feet of a hotel lobby in Chandler. I pressed a start button on the touch screen, and a ride that some experts equate to a horizontal elevator began.