The driverless car revolution is finally happening with Waymo’s announcement of having launched the world’s first commercial autonomous taxi service.
It’s been a little over eight years since Google first began testing self-driving cars on the road. Google’s spin-off company, Waymo has been training its fleet in a limited area around Phoenix with a select group of test-riders. Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, said that same group of riders will be the first customers for the commercial launch of Waymo One.
Explaining In his blog post, Krafcik that “hundreds” of people who participated in the early rider program will be given access to the Waymo One app for testing the service and providing feedback but will now be paying for it. Another portion of the group will continue in the early rider program trying out new features as Waymo adds them.
The service will operate 24/7 and be limited to Arizona’s Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert areas. For the time being there will be someone behind the wheel of the commercial service for the time being. The Waymo One app is similar to car apps like Uber’s, though the route-tracking screen shows off some more details surrounding the car. Up to three adults and a child can ride at once.
The advantages of an autonomous car service include people saving on traffic time and fewer deaths behind the wheel besides artificial intelligence experiencing significant benefits. However, the downside means loss of jobs for humans. Krafcik shared a few early riders had “inspiring” stories on his blog. He writes that they “used our self-driving vehicles to take courses at a local college, commute to work and to high school, accompany a vision-impaired aunt shopping, get to book club each week, connect to buses, and try new restaurants on date night.” This shows the test group went about their lives and took a Waymo rather than a taxi.
Alphabet’s Waymo offers a Uber-like service that works over a mobile app. Consumers download an app that functions like Uber or Lyft; confirm the pickup location, input where the destination and finally receive a price estimate before they formally request the ride. For queries during the trip, the app will connect with a Waymo support agent. The self-driving vehicle also comes with in-car consoles that connect with rider support.
“These channels will become even more important as we transition to fully driverless rides,” Waymo said. “Over time, we hope to make Waymo One available to even more members of the public as we add vehicles and drive in more places,” Krafcik wrote in a separate blog post. “Self-driving technology is new to many, so we’re proceeding carefully with the comfort and convenience of our riders in mind,” Krafcik added.
Waymo has been piloting cars in the Phoenix area since 2016, taking advantage of a permissive regulatory environment in Arizona that has attracted many companies working on autonomous driving. Waymo has a fleet of 600 Chrysler Pacifica vans equipped with autonomous driving capabilities. It has struck deals with Fiat Chrysler and Jaguar Land Rover to add as many as 82,000 vehicles to the service over time.
In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Dan Chu, Waymo’s head of product, called the announcement ‘a beginning’. “We are excited to bring more members of the public into this service and expand it over time,” Chu said. The Waymo test vehicles operate in “geofenced” areas in multiple cities where the company has mapped the roads, driveways and other features.
Waymo officials say their intent is to develop the world’s safest driver, and then replicate that driver into all of its vehicles. But they are not there yet, and exactly how safe the cars are remains unclear.
Reid Beer, a 22-year-old Mesa resident who sells insurance, has used the Waymo Early Rider service since about July and pays for most of his rides. Beer said he could use other ride services, but finds Waymo’s pricing consistent and fair. It’s unclear whether the test pricing he has experienced as an Early Rider will be consistent with Waymo One. “If it is in the network, I take the Waymo,” Beer said. He intends taking his grandparents on a Waymo One autonomous car ride once.
For now self-driving cars are in a strange moment between impossible dream and everyday conveyance and in all likelihood will be coming soon to a suburb near you.