TEMPE, Ariz. — Karen Wilson often works with Waymo’s driverless vehicles. Just don’t ask her to ride in one.
“I’ve relied on my instincts way too long,” says Wilson, a dispatcher at AutoNation Toyota Tempe who previously made a career of driving tractor-trailers. She never had an incident during 16 years behind the wheel of big rigs and says she’s only received two speeding tickets in four decades of driving.
She’s on the front lines of Waymo’s delivery partnership with retailer AutoNation Inc., responsible for coordinating the delivery of hundreds, if not thousands, of parts from this distribution center to other auto dealerships and repair shops in this metro Phoenix area.
Human drivers, some employed by AutoNation and some by independent contractors, deliver most of the parts. Waymo’s driverless vehicles complement their work.
Waymo and AutoNation first partnered on self-driving matters in November 2017, when the latter agreed to help provide maintenance for Waymo’s burgeoning fleet in the metro Phoenix area. AutoNation has twice invested in Waymo’s fundraising rounds, and the partners expanded the scope of their work in November 2019, adding these autonomous B2B deliveries which now reach a dozen locations.
While Wilson ranks among the majority of Americans who don’t yet trust autonomous vehicles for human travel, she’s agnostic on whether an AV carries a particular parcel. So long as it gets where it needs to go and customers are happy.
There are practical considerations, though, for using a Waymo AV for deliveries.
“I can’t fit half this stuff into a car,” she said, pointing to a warehouse full of automotive parts.
Unlike Waymo’s partnership with UPS Inc., which has dedicated Chrysler Pacificas tailored for short-haul package delivery, AutoNation uses the same Waymo vehicles used by human passengers. Sometimes the seats get in the way.
That’s a conscious decision by the partners to try and maximize the usage of the robotaxi fleet. Riders often need the vehicles at different times from when deliveries are in demand during a weekday, so the two uses can be complementary.
“The hypothesis is that sharing between the ride-hailing service and delivery we gain economies of scale and reduce costs for our partners,” said Melanie D’achon, a strategic partnerships manager at Waymo who oversees the work with AutoNation.
Driverless deliveries cannot take place outside Waymo’s operating range, and AutoNation’s customers are all over the East Valley.
Sometimes dealerships within the geofenced area are not eligible for autonomous deliveries because Waymo vehicles cannot turn around in their parking lots; they are constrained by an inability to reverse. But Waymo and AutoNation are working to add more eligible locations this quarter.
Sometimes Wilson needs to send a human driver to pick up payment for parts delivered by the AV, a task that would have been part of a round trip for a human courier.
The companies are working together to solve those and other challenges.
Early on, Wilson and others used the same ride-hailing app as Waymo One riders to hail driverless vehicles. But Waymo learned AutoNation’s dispatchers are rarely on handheld devices. So the engineers customized an online tool that works on Wilson’s desktop computer and can accommodate multiple vehicle requests at the same time.
“Going into it, we thought it’d be very similar to ride-hailing,” D’achon said. “We learned, no, we need a tool for delivery and dispatch. That’s probably our biggest learning, the tool and infrastructure side of this.”
Deliveries have been reliable throughout the partnership, according to Wilson. Only once did a package not show up on time, when a Pacifica had safely been waylaid on the side of a nearby road about a mile from the distribution center. But Wilson took that delay in good spirit.
“That’s life,” she said. “Whether it’s drivers or driverless.”