Waymo in San Francisco: A lesson in public advocacy for AI
DESCRIPTIONWho loves the idea of autonomous, driverless taxis best? Hard to say, but anyone who is blind will likely tell you they can’t wait. Why? The human drivers in ride-share apps turn down passengers with guide dogs, and driving with a stranger is that much more stressful when you can’t see them. And fundamentally, it’s about mobility without reliance on other people. That’s why Lighthouse and NFB took a big interest in Waymo’s San Francisco rollout and even took up the cause for the autonomous taxis.
STEVEN AQUINO: Happy to be here at Sight Tech Global. With that, I would love to have my panel list introduce themselves.
RACHEL KAMEN: Hi, everyone. I can kick things off. My name is Rachel Kamen. I’m on the Public Affairs team at Waymo, and I’m based in San Francisco, California. Really happy to be here today on this incredible panel.
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: I’m Sharon Giovinazzo. I’m the CEO of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired of San Francisco.
TIM ELDER: And hello, I’m Tim Elder, the elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of California and an attorney at the TRE Legal Practice, a civil rights law firm here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
STEVEN AQUINO: So, Rachel, why don’t you start us off by talking to us just about the state of Waymo in San Francisco and how the company is doing so far?
RACHEL KAMEN: Will do. Thanks, Steven. So to set the tone here, Waymo is an autonomous driving technology company with a mission to make it safe, accessible, and easy for people and things to get where they need to go. We’ve been around for well over a decade at this point, and our vehicles are on the roads in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Metro Phoenix and Austin, Texas. In August 2023, here in San Francisco, we were granted our driverless deployment permit through the California Public Utilities Commission. The permit was granted after a robust regulatory process, which took many, many months, many community partners involved, many voices at the table. And after receiving our permit in August, we’re now able to offer a paid ride-hailing service in San Francisco 7:00 by 7:00 throughout the city. Again, there were so many community partners and individuals that came to the table to advocate on behalf of autonomous driving technology and the benefits that it brings to them individually, as a community, how we’re creating safer roads. And we’re so appreciative of everyone who took the time and energy and leadership to advocate on behalf of the autonomous driving industry. In particular, the blind community provided an incredible voice to move the permitting process forward. And in particular, here on the panel today, Tim Elder with NFB and Sharon from LightHouse were incredible allies and friends throughout the process. And we’re incredibly grateful for your partnership, leadership, and advocacy in this space.
STEVEN AQUINO: That’s an awesome segue. For Tim and Sharon, how did you two get involved with Waymo? And what about them and the tech stood out?
TIM ELDER: Happy to share. Yeah, so the National Federation of the Blind is the oldest organization of blind people, going back decades and decades. And we, as a national movement, have really always been on the forefront of technology because of the extreme benefits that that technology can provide for access and which then benefits blind people and their families. So we have long been interested in this idea of driving and independence in transportation and what the technology can provide. In fact, the National Federation of the Blind was a leading partner on the first vehicle that was driven nonvisually by a blind person on the Daytona Speedway. It’s called the Blind Driver Challenge, and it involved a strategic partnership with Virginia Tech and a number of other technology companies. And so as the autonomous technology has come about, the NFB has always been at the forefront of that. And obviously, the leading companies– and Waymo in particular, being a partner with a firm like this is something that the NFB has always been interested in. And so here in California, where we are highly integrated in with innovation and disruption and new technologies, the NFB California affiliate, in partnership with our national organization, has been very engaged with Waymo. And we’ve been very pleased with the level of outreach that they have shown to us and the reception to the feedback that we are giving them about how this technology is deployed
STEVEN AQUINO: Sharon.
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: Yeah. And for me, when I stepped in a year ago as the CEO of the LightHouse, the partnership was already there, so how lucky was I? And I’ll never forget that first ride in that first autonomous vehicle that I took. And I’m still in awe every time I get in one of those. But the thing that has set Waymo apart from everything else that I’ve experienced in the last 23 years in blindness was they actually considered accessibility out of the gate. Has it been perfect? Close to it, but they’ve definitely listened to everything that we’ve said along the way. And for the LightHouse, we’ve been around since 1902. So even though technology is a lot better than what it was, there’s still a need. And that’s one of the things that Waymo is definitely doing a great job at, is filling a need.
STEVEN AQUINO: Rachel, how did your commitment to accessibility start? Did you set out to make the cars accessible from the start or has it been a learning journey?
RACHEL KAMEN: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, at the core, as a company, accessibility and safety and community collaboration and partnership is at the core of everything that Waymo is about. So yes, from the original Google self-driving car project that was the original– the concept for Waymo just shy of 15 years ago, thinking, first, before everything else, how can we best serve the community? Thinking and keeping top of mind, who will benefit most from this technology? And how do we work with these groups, with these individuals, with these communities to make sure, like Tim and Sharon had said, that they’re a part of the process from the very moment, not someone or groups that we contact after the fact or during? We have worked years directly with disability advocacy organizations, groups, and individuals to make sure that they are part of the process. That includes the vehicle design, right? What vehicles are we using, and why? Is that sustainable? Is it accessible? Are they safe for all of our users? Of course, the in-car experience, the app experience, so what is the rider experiencing from hailing the ride to exiting at their destination, of course, destination wayfinding, and then also rider support training? We have a robust team of rider support agents and making sure that they have the tools and information to be able to provide support and a positive experience for all riders. So it’s deeply ingrained that all that we do. At this point, we’re quite evolved. It’s 2023. We have our driverless deployment permit in San Francisco. We’ve been operating in Metro Phoenix for a number of years now, offering a ride-hailing service as well. And so what this looks like is we’re constantly iterating. It’s not like, we did it. Good to go. We’re set for the future of autonomous driving technology. No, quite the opposite. And LightHouse and NFB are active partners in this as well and a variety of other disability advocacy organizations. But it takes the shape of user experience research studies, community roundtables, grabbing lunch with Sharon and catching up and hearing about her experience, things along those nature, both formalized and casual, but ensuring that community members and our riders are a part of shaping who we are today and who we are in the future and constantly improving. Sharon said it’s not perfect. And we’re always evolving and growing and making sure that we’re offering the most accessible service for all riders.
STEVEN AQUINO: For Sharon and Tim, I want to stay on this topic for a second. With the advent of this technology– and I know there’s been a lot in the moves about autonomous vehicles of weight, about safety, and all that. But from an accessibility standpoint, can you guys share, why is this technology so exciting?
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: So for me, the technology is so exciting because, one, it’s just accessible at your fingertips. It’s available. It’s accessible. It’s usable. It’s friendly. It’s everything that sometimes the rideshare services are not. It’s the ease of use of it, just that I can pick my phone up– I’m a screen reader user. So I’m using Apple, and I’m using VoiceOver with that. I mean, I know when the car is sitting at a stop sign. I know when it’s sitting at a red light. I get to unlock the car myself, so I don’t have to worry about somebody else just charging up and getting into a car. I mean, the level of safety– frankly, I hate to go from a Waymo to a sighted driver because it’s so much safer, I feel. Well, number one, there’s no distractions. There’s no nothing along the way. But the technology is just absolutely phenomenal. At some point, we’ll be able to control the heater and the radio from our iPhone. We’re just not there yet. And so I’m crying out, I need my radio, and I need to control the air. [LAUGHS]
TIM ELDER: Yeah. And if controlling the radio and the heater are problems, I mean, look at how exciting that is. These are the things we’re concerned about. We’re not just trying to get from point A to point B. I mean, I’m personally excited because this technology and having the independence and control to go from one place to another in a personal, private vehicle that’s not shared, you can control your environment. You can use your time in whatever way you want. You can use your device. You can take a nap, whatever you want to do. And you have that same independence that a licensed driver has and going from one place to another on demand, when you want to go. And you have that same privacy and independence that the driver experiences. Ubers and taxis, I mean, these are all great things. These are all tools that we use. But you get into an Uber or a Lyft, and it’s useful, and that’s great. But you may have to engage with the driver, depending on how rude you want to be. And, I mean, often as a blind person, you instantly become their first experience with a blind person, and so they’re very curious, and they want to engage in this interactive documentary exhibit that’s now in their vehicle and have a nice chat about what it’s like to be blind, which I’m all in favor of. At the same time, maybe you just want to get in the car and take a nap or look at stuff on Facebook or have a conversation with your traveling companion. So I’m excited about all of these things. In addition to being on the forefront of technology, I must say, when I first got into one of these vehicles and realized I am traveling down a busy San Francisco street and there is nobody in the front seat, I never thought I would ever see this day. And it’s here already just commonplace on the street. So it’s still, I guess, very new and novel and exciting in that way. But the level of independence and autonomy that this is going to provide for the individual and where they want to go, I think that’s the true value and what’s really exciting to most blind people who’ve experienced the technology.
STEVEN AQUINO: Sorry.
RACHEL KAMEN: One more thing to add in, I really want to highlight that the accessibility features that are in the Waymo app today and in the vehicle, I mean, are thanks to LightHouse, thanks to NFB, thanks to our Waymo accessibility network partners, who have taken the time and heart and soul over the years to work with us, to participate in various studies, go on rides and provide feedback. So sharing a lot of what you spoke about, assistive in-car audio, turn-by-turn navigation, screen reader support, audio cues to help folks locate their vehicle, all of this came from the community. I mean, just in 2022, so I guess a little while ago at this point, but in 2022, both NFB and LightHouse participated in the US Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge, where they tested out a wide variety of wayfinding prototypes that Waymo created. And that feedback and that experience was directly put into the app and put into action. So, I mean, again, just really highlighting how community collaboration, feedback, and honest and open communication is such a critical part of moving this technology forward and creating more accessible modes of transportation for the community.
TIM ELDER: And, Steven, I want to just flag something, I mean, because that’s absolutely true and great, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for a lot of technology companies, anyone entering the autonomous vehicle space, for sure. But in general, for anyone developing technology, companies are learning, and Waymo has learned this, I think, that the value of engaging the blindness community is you will generate a product and a user experience that, because it accounts for non-visual access, is just so much better for everyone. It’s the same thing as a wheelchair ramp or a curb cut designed for a wheelchair but benefits anyone with a stroller, a push cart, or rolling luggage. And so Waymo, I think, is starting to realize this benefit of when you design inclusively and nonvisually, you get a lot of tertiary benefits for the general user base.
STEVEN AQUINO: So on that note, Rachel, I wanted to follow up by asking– we’ve talked a bit about the technology inside the car and everything, but can you talk about what the company is doing in terms of public education? And with all the stuff in the news lately, what’s happening to really show people that this technology has real, serious benefit to the blind and low-vision people?
RACHEL KAMEN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, Steven, you said it. Public education is a huge part of the work that we do as a company. It’s a large part of the work that I do on the Public Affairs team at Waymo. And, I mean, it may sound simplistic, but at the core, it’s about being good neighbors. It’s knowing the neighborhoods that you’re in within any given city, knowing the nonprofits within, the disability advocacy orgs within, the leaders within. And it’s not just about, I don’t know, a one-time whatever it may be, a one-time donation, a one-time event, a one-time tabling at a street fair or an event. It’s about holistic, wraparound partnerships where we keep in touch, where we build rapport, we build trust. We show up. And I’ll focus on San Francisco today because that’s where most of us are located on this panel. But this is also in Metro Phoenix, Los Angeles, Austin. But really sharing the technology. We have to make sure that community members are able to enjoy the technology, go for a ride, share it with their coworkers, with their friends, with their family. I mean, that’s just a big piece of it, is just being really intentional and really sincere in how we engage with the community. We work with hundreds of organizations across the country. And we have special programs that we have catered to the needs of each organization that we partner with to make sure that their community members are taking rides, that they’re able to give feedback, and that we’re there to proactively engage with the community. We do charitable deliveries, where we’re able to actually help nonprofits get things– part of our mission, get people and things safely where they need to go, help organizations get things where they need to go. Hopefully, that gives them a little less stress on their transportation budget or on operation costs. But it’s also having difficult conversations. Not every conversation is talking with Tim or Sharon. And we saw that really clearly throughout the California Public Utilities Commission permitting process. But we’re here for that. We want to have these conversations. We want to take people for rides. We want to share the potential of this technology, which would benefit– I mean, would benefit the world. This is a really huge technology that creates safer roads, more accessible roads. So as a company, we are really dedicated to working with the community. In fact, we can’t do really anything without our feedback from the community, relationships to the community, and also friendships. That’s a huge piece of it too. And Sharon and Tim are really wonderful examples of that that I’m really proud to be able to work with both Sharon and Tim and both organizations closely.
STEVEN AQUINO: For you, Sharon and Tim, how are you doing the education, advocacy space? How are you, in your respective organizations, trying to teach people about this technology?
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: So for Sharon, at the San Francisco LightHouse, we talk a lot about it. God gifted me with a great, big mouth, and I’m not afraid to use it. And I’m not afraid to use the platform for it either, even though there has been some people who came back and said, how can you support something that is not all the way ready yet? It’s like, we’re not going to stop the technology at this point in time. Let’s help them get it ready, and let’s help them know what is needed and what’s needed in the community, rather than just sitting back and whining about it. But for us, it just makes sense. It levels the playing field. For me, I’m one that can get left several times because I decide to use a guide dog to navigate my world. And so when I do that and one of the rideshare services just leave me standing on the side of the road, what dignity and respect do I have at that point in time? So, Tim, throw it over to you.
TIM ELDER: So we’re doing a lot of education, I suppose, mostly to let people know that this technology is actually here. I think a lot of blind people are still under the presumption that this is just some sort of beta program that’s still in development. It’s not ready for prime time yet. Maybe it’s happening in some sort of a back alley in San Francisco, but it’s not really anything to be ready. And maybe my kids will enjoy this technology, but it’s not for me yet. And that’s, I think, the message we’re trying to dispel or the understanding we’re trying to break. We have blind people throughout the entire United States that obviously want the same level of independence as blind people in San Francisco. So we’re trying to keep that understanding in other places, particularly here in California, where we’ve got people in Sacramento and Los Angeles and San Diego that would all love to have the same technology and to let them know that, no, this could be in your neighborhood very soon. So let’s keep an eye on this. Let’s keep engaged in the regulatory process. Let’s be a part of the political system that will control how soon or how long it takes for this technology to reach a neighborhood near you. And so I think that’s the power of our organization, National Federation of the Blind of California, is that we have people throughout the entire state who want to be engaged in a political process and a regulatory process that affects the access that they have in their local communities.
STEVEN AQUINO: So I want to just– before we wrap up, I just want to ask you, Sharon and Tim– Rachel hit on it by saying that it’s an evergreen thing and everything, but where do you think that Waymo and the technology can get better at?
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: Gee, thanks, Tim. So I think that this is in for the long haul. I mean, I definitely don’t think that it’s going anywhere. And every time I bring somebody in, I say, you’re riding in the future, and the future is now. I mean, I can see the day where I can walk onto a car lot and buy my own car that I can navigate around the city on my own with. I don’t think that we’re quite there yet, but, I mean, we see evidence of it that’s happening all the time. I’ve ridden in Teslas, and I know that technology is there. And it’s just like everything else with everybody else, is you have the early adopters. And I think that Tim and I are probably the ones that are like, yes, give me that car, and give it to me now. Where the choice isn’t going to be for everyone– and we don’t want to force anybody into it. But everybody that I’ve brought into one of the Waymo’s has always said– it’s like, wow, I can’t believe that this is now. I really can’t. So we definitely appreciate Waymo and everything that they’ve done for the LightHouse and for our community as a whole. Tim.
TIM ELDER: Sure. I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. The technology is new, and so it’s limited in its geography at the moment. And so the places that you can go, that’s still a pretty narrow set of locations, but it’s expanding. I mean, that’s the good news. This is expanding. It’s not going to grow and scale as fast as ridesharing. And as the technology improves, we want to make sure it’s safe and it will grow at a safe and cautious pace. But once the technology’s proven, it will start to scale. So the curve of adoption, I think, will be not as steep as it was for ridesharing. But I do think the good news still is that we will see it grow safely, slowly over time. And the question is, how can we accelerate that scaling? How can we make sure this gets to some small town outside of Redding just as readily as it’s in Los Angeles or the major metropolitan areas? And how much is it going to cost? Is this going to be an affordable option? And so for me, the things that can get better and the things that we should keep an eye on and keep watching are, how does this scale? And how does it expand so that the places that we can reach with the technology are places that are within an area that we want to go or we can basically go anywhere that we would want to go or need to go and reach it without having to use any other form of transportation in conjunction with this technology?
STEVEN AQUINO: Rachel, did you have anything to add?
RACHEL KAMEN: I mean, those are shared goals. And again, Tim, you said it. Everything is about safety, slow and steady, really making sure that we’re, at any given point, ready for the next step, ready to expand, ready to grow. And right now, we’re just really proud and focused on our ride-hailing service and for different markets, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Metro Phoenix, and Austin, and really so proud and thrilled that we are able to provide rides to tens of thousands of riders every single week, safely getting from A to B, independently getting from A to B. And that’s where we’re at today. I feel very confident a very bright and scalable future ahead.
STEVEN AQUINO: Rachel from Waymo and Sharon from the LightHouse and Tim from NFB, thank you so much for your time today and your thoughtfulness. And I enjoyed our talk very much.
SHARON GIOVINAZZO: Thank you, Steven.
TIM ELDER: Yeah, thank you.
RACHEL KAMEN: Thank you, Steven.