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Waymo’s self-driving car challenge: Making it easier to pick up passengers

  • Self-driving cars must master how to pick up passengers.
  • Here are the problems Waymo's self-driving minivans encountered during a pilot program.

Among the countless situations autonomous cars must master before we see driverless vehicles giving us rides is a seemingly mundane one: Where do you pick up passengers?

"Pickups can be one of the most stressful moments for passengers," said Juliet Rothenberg who oversees rider experience for Waymo, formerly known as the Google self-driving car project. "We're exploring features to recognize riders earlier."

Here's the problem Waymo's self-driving minivans have encountered when picking up riders in a pilot program in Arizona.

Sometimes the passenger is not at the exact location they indicated when calling for a ride on the Waymo self-driving car app. Other times, riders do not realize they need to be at the exact pickup location. The riders will walk toward the minivan as it is moving toward the designated pick up spot. Since the car will only do the designated pickup location, flagging down the car earlier is not an option. The "brains" of the self-driving minivan may miss where to pick up the passenger, and that passenger could be frustrated.

The situation is one ride-hailing users have encountered numerous times. It is not uncommon to have an Uber, Lyft or some other driver call you on a busy city street and say, "Where are you? I'm here."

Not surprisingly, one of the most common questions Waymo gets from those using its self-driving minivans is one we can all relate to. "What's happening with my pickup is one we hear from riders," said Rothenberg.

Waymo says it is working on ways to eliminate the frustrating situation, but it won't say what those solutions might include.

In the meantime, it looks like self-driving cars are wrestling with a problem all of us have encountered numerous times: The person being picked up is not where we thought they would be.

Also see: A recent ride in a Waymo self-driving van shows they're almost ready for prime time

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.