- Priscilla Knox is head of Waymo’s Rider Support team.
- Her job is to oversee a 24/7 operation that deals with the issues passengers might have as they begin to experience truly driverless vehicles.
- Knox is also involved with Women of Waymo, an employee group seeking to bring more women into leadership positions.
Editor’s note: Business Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company. This is the fourth profile in the series. To read the others, click here. For a brief history of Waymo, click here.
Imagine that you’re sitting in a Waymo One self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan in the Phoenix area, enjoying your autonomously piloted ride, when the vehicle makes a turn you didn’t expect.
This is nothing new for anyone who has ever hailed a taxi. In New York, where I work, if a cabbie takes a route I disagree with, I can immediately start a conversation about why we should go my way. And for now, Waymo One has human monitors at the wheel.
But the company’s plan is to transition to a fully driverless service. No one behind the wheel. Instead, a screen for passengers to use for interactions with the technology.
“When there’s no driver, we’re the voice of the car,” said Priscilla Knox, who heads Waymo’s Rider Support team. She supervises a staff of 30 — nine directly — that keeps an eye on what’s happening in Waymo’s vehicles in locations where the service has already been launched and where it’s currently being tested.
“We’re supporting the first driverless cars,” she said in an interview from the Mountain View, CA headquarters of Waymo’s parent company, Alphabet (until 2016, Waymo was known as the Google Car project and internally as “Chauffeur” before Google became Alphabet).
“We’re guiding riders through the experience because we don’t know how people will react,” she added. “It’s been an amazing learning experience so far.”
Waymo is taking the time to get its service right
Waymo is the first company to offer a commercial ride-hailing service using driverless technology, introducing Waymo One last year. But it certainly hasn’t rushed to market. In fact, it’s been only in the past two years that Waymo’s business ambitions have clearly taken shape, under the leadership of CEO John Krafcik, an auto-industry veteran hired by Alphabet in 2016.
Waymo is taking its time — developing the hardware-and-software that powers its “driver,” opening discussions with communities and local governments before introducing its service, and helping customers make sense of what they’re dealing with when they step into a Waymo vehicle.
The company also isn’t simply throwing engineers at its challenges. Waymo, in particular, employs people with non-technical backgrounds. Knox, who grew up in Maine, went to George Washington University for American studies and while in school, worked for small clothing companies. She wound up the San Francisco Bay Area because she wanted to join Levi’s. A job with a small clothing brand followed, but she later decided that she wanted to do something that would be more meaningful.
That urge led to what she figured would be a part-time job on the Google Car project in 2011, test-driving vehicles. Part-time rapidly morphed into full-time, and before she knew it, she was undergoing a change in her lifelong disinterest in driving.
A “mindblowing” experience for someone who didn’t think much about driving before Waymo
“I hadn’t been following the tech of self-driving cars,” she said.
“I took driving pretty lightly, living in Washington, DC and thinking that I didn’t need a car, taking public transportation and walking. But test-driving the [Google] cars 40 hours per week was mindblowing, seeing the impact the technology could have on the world.”
According to Knox, the idea for rider support took root when what had been the Google Car moved toward the concept of becoming a fully driverless ride-hailing service — what’s now rolling out in the Phoenix area as Waymo One.
“We started to think to think about how we would communicate how we could interact better with people,” Knox said. “We knew that we had to have components of a customer support organization.”
The way it works is that if an issue arises in a Waymo vehicle, assuming there is no human driver, a passenger would press a button in the vehicle to connect with an agent. (Currently, passenger concerns expressed to the human monitoring the system in the driver’s seat can be referred to the Rider Support team.)
“My team is the human element,” Knox said. Agents have a system that mirrors the information passengers see in the vehicle, so if needed they can address concerns. Interactions could be handled with voice, email, or chat. At the moment, Waymo has several dozen agents, in Phoenix and Austin, TX, another test location.
A quick commute — but travel to Arizona and Texas
Knox’s home office is in San Francisco, but she spends considerable time in Arizona and Texas and sometimes still has to make her way down to Mountain View as she did for seven years, although walking or biking to work is now an option. She directly manages her reports, and they in turn work with shift operators.
Rider Support is a 24/7 responsibility, something that Knox admitted was an adjustment.
“I’m an eight-to-six kind of person,” she said of her schedule, which typically involved a 7:30 AM wake-up, followed by her enviably brief commute, then meetings with product engineers, check-ins with her team, and a review of urgent emails with an eye toward flagging Waymo rides that were odd or that generated new customer questions. At home, she might put in another hour, and she’s available should anything usual require attention.
She’s also the social chairperson of Women of Waymo — “WOW” as it’s known. What started out as a small lunchtime group has grown to over 100, meeting monthly to provide different kinds of support to women at the company. The overarching goal is to move more women into leadership roles.
That’s an objective Knox said Waymo’s current leadership has gotten behind. And other employee groups have started to emulate WOW’s success. It’s a myth that there are no women in the tech industry; Waymo, in particular, has demonstrated that there are. But there is a dearth of female leadership in Silicon Valley, and WOW’s members want to fix that.
It makes sense that Knox would participate in the effort. It also makes sense that Waymo would like the idea of its female employees organizing for change. The company, increasingly, is about engagement and interaction — with customers and communities. Of course, at the end of the day, Waymo’s business plan hinges on getting cars on the road.
Knox has been there since the early days, a Waymo veteran at this juncture, and her journey has been one of constant surprise.
“I’ve been in the car at every stage,” she said, adding that she now considers it “archaic” to fall back to her old habit of thinking that the Waymo vehicle wouldn’t be able to do something.
“I trust the cars more than most people,” she said. “I know the car is thinking through every possible scenario.”