Watching a car drive down the street without a driver is not an everyday experience, let alone riding in one. Meeting a famous football icon in the flesh isn’t either.
But thanks to the efforts of a new powerhouse partnership, more than 500 Chandler sports fans lived to tell both tales on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Arizona Cardinals Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald teamed up with self-driving technology company Waymo to host the Phoenix Fan Fest, a community celebration geared toward promoting literacy and technology access in schools.
The free jamboree, which took place at Chandler High School on February 15, invited visitors to kick back with “Fitz,” go for a spin in a driverless set of wheels, indulge in savory treats made fresh by local food trucks and learn about Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) through hands-on sports-themed activities.
The fan fest supported the athlete’s philanthropic First Down Fund, which advocates reading proficiency and technology for K-12 youth as cornerstones for success.
Marking the beginning of a new community-driven alliance with Waymo, Fitzgerald tells Entertainer! Magazine he strives to be a positive role model both on and off the field.
“I’ve been here for 16 years now and this community has supported me through and through,” he expresses. “I just want to make sure they understand that it hasn’t gone unappreciated.
Adding, “I want them to know I’m trying to give back.”
The Future Hall of Famer has been with the Cardinals since 2004, amassing an impressive total of 1,378 receptions, 17,083 yards and 120 touchdowns so far.
In January, Fitzgerald announced to his 2.2 million Twitter followers he is joining Waymo – the world’s first and only company to launch a public self-driving ride-hailing service – as their newest brand ambassador.
The 37-year-old tweeted a video of himself riding in one of the company’s driverless vehicles, calling the ride “pretty unique” and “exhilarating.”
Waymo Local Policy and Community Manager Dezbah Hatathli says deciding to collaborate with Fitzgerald was a “no brainer.”
The Chandler-based company shares the athlete’s same fervor for service work, she tells Entertainer! Magazine, and looks forward to their future endeavors.
The self-driving company saw the fan fest as an opportunity to thank the East Valley city for welcoming its presence with open arms.
“Today’s event was really about showing Chandler our appreciation for letting us come to town and do our testing,” Hatathli shares.
“The Chandler mayor, council and community have been really supportive in wanting to help to drive this technology forward,” she continues.
In a slick grand entrance, Fitzgerald kick started the festivities by arriving in the backseat of one of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Sporting a heather-grey sweatsuit, paired with bright white sneakers and an even brighter smile, the professional athlete met with the high school football team before being ushered inside.
Fitzgerald joined Hatathli and Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke to welcome the crowd and praising the city’s innovative efforts.
“It’s great to be here,” the athlete says warmly. “I just want to thank Waymo for giving me the opportunity to come over here and celebrate this great community of Chandler.”
“I’m glad I get a chance to meet and greet some of the people here,” he adds.
Smiling, Fitzgerald suggests he might even meet the school’s “budding stars” out on the field.
After interacting with fans and passing out signed mini footballs, Fitzgerald geared up for a special story time.
He greeted a gaggle of wide-eyed children lounging on clusters of colorful bean bag chairs underneath a shaded tent.
Fitzgerald read “Once Upon a Weasel” by Salvo Lavis and “NanoBots,” a book written by Tucson’s Chris Gall.
For the Fest’s “field series,” a slightly older crowd turned things up a notch.
In an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kids practiced jumping, weaving, running and throwing with the Cardinals player and other NFL pros.
Other festival elements included a library card sign-up booth and hands-on scientific experiments, such as dissecting footballs and building “kickers” to catapult small objects through mini field goals.
Attendees had the chance to explore interactive virtual reality stations, with the help of the Tech Kids Project, and learn about the behind-the-scenes of developing video games.
Waymo also promoted the launch of its new ride-hail service, Waymo One.
The free app, which boasts more than 1,500 active riders, allows users to call driverless cars to pick them up and transport them to locations within the company’s service area.
The company operates around 600 vehicles in Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe and Chandler on 24/7 basis, according to its website, depending on the demand.
With safety as a top priority, Waymo uses machine learning to detect and classify different types of objects and road features.
The cars’ perception systems are then able to recognize objects and their corresponding behaviors, such as cyclists, joggers, traffic light colors, temporary road signs and even trees.
“Safety is our primary concern and the thing we hold most dear,” says Hatathli. “We want to be responsible and roll this out very thoughtfully and carefully.”
Waymo is committed to improving road safety by eliminating distracted driving – meaning less instances of drivers falling asleep behind the wheel, driving drunk or texting.
The innovative brand is also conducting tests along the west coast to tailor its cars for harsher weather conditions.
“Out here the weather is always perfect,” says Hatathli. “But we also have to consider factors like ice, fog, snow and sleet if we really want to make sure we’re building a robust technology.”
Another perk is that the driverless cars allow riders to sit back and relax – or not.
“The number one benefit for me personally is productivity,” Hatathli says. “I do a lot of outreach and engagement, so I spend my time catching up on emails and phone calls.”
Fitzgerald isn’t the only partnership Waymo has its eyes on either.
The self-driving company recently announced another partnership with UPS in the Phoenix area.
Waymo vehicles will soon deliver packages from select UPS stores to a hub in Tempe, the company website claims.
But as for the success of Waymo’s first undertaking with Fitzgerald, Hatathli says she is pleased.
“Waymo is appreciative of that partnership,” she says of the professional athlete. “We have always stood on the sidelines to admire a lot of the work he’s done here for Arizona and the local community.”
Fitzgerald feels the same way.
The athlete describes his new partners as a “delight to work with” and “really community-based.”
“They’re really driven to make a positive impact in the community and I think that’s what aligned us,” Fitzgerald notes.
For those interested in the driverless experience, Waymo One is now available on the App Store for iPhones and iPads.