Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, announced it will be opening up its fully driverless vehicles to all customers of its ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona. Previously, the company only allowed a select few people. Now, over a thousand people will get to ride in a Waymo vehicle without a human safety driver in the front seat.
Waymo has been testing its vehicles in the Phoenix area since early 2017. Its self-driving cars operate in an approximately 100-square-mile service area that includes the towns Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe — though its fully driverless cars are restricted to an area that is half that size. In late 2018, the company launched a limited public ride-hailing service called Waymo One, but the only customers to get access were people who had first been vetted through Waymo’s early rider program of beta testers. Waymo said it has around 1,500 monthly active users from both programs, the same number it reported in December 2019.
Previously, only members of Waymo’s early rider program were allowed to ride in the company’s driverless vehicles. Those people sign nondisclosure agreements with the company in order to gain access to early versions of Waymo’s technology. This bars them from speaking publicly when, say, one of their trips goes off course. Waymo won’t say how many people or how many trips its fully driverless vehicles have made so far.
To start out, the company plans to offer fully driverless trips to Waymo One customers only — though those people can bring friends and family along for the ride, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post. Over the next several weeks, more people will be invited to sign up for Waymo One. (The company has a waitlist from which it selects participants.)
The company also plans to add in-vehicle barriers between the front row of seats and the rear passenger cabin. Then it will be “re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area,” he said. The vehicles will also be cleaned more frequently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s health and safety guidelines are outlined here. (Some of the company’s in-vehicle safety operators in California have complained the measures are inadequate.)
“In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless,” Krafcik said, but he didn’t provide an exact timeline. “We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand.”
These driverless vehicles aren’t totally alone in the wilderness. Waymo has a team of remote employees who watch the real-time feeds of each vehicle’s eight cameras and can help, with the push of a button, if the software runs into a difficult spot and needs a human eye to figure out what’s going on. But Waymo insists these remote operators won’t be “joy-sticking” the cars, which are outfitted with a bevy of cameras and sensors that help it “see” its surroundings. The car will be making most of the driving decisions itself thanks to its large computer system and artificial intelligence software.
This isn’t the first time Waymo has unveiled fully driverless cars to much fanfare. On November 7th, 2017, Krafcik took the stage at a tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal, and said, “Fully self-driving cars are here.” He showed a video of the company’s driverless vehicles picking up and dropping off passengers in Chandler. And he promised that “within the next few months,” more people would get the chance to ride in Waymo’s most advanced vehicles.
But that didn’t really happen. The company tried again in May 2018, releasing another video that was pretty similar to the first: passengers giggling nervously at the sight of an empty driver’s seat, wondering aloud whether passersby are also slightly freaked out, and making casual references to “the future.” One man gets so bored that he falls asleep.
Those trips occurred in a small, largely residential portion of its service area, and they were never a majority of the rides provided by Waymo. Meanwhile, reports begin to circulate about problems with Waymo’s driving. The company’s most advanced vehicles were still occasionally confounded by certain traffic situations, which suggests the tech — while incredibly advanced — was not quite ready for the public rollout Waymo was predicting. By mid-2018, the company began putting trained safety drivers back in the driverless vehicles, according to The Information. And the company stopped talking publicly about its driverless trips.
But with those vehicles now finally available to a broader population of people, expect the company to speak more openly about its plan to make them 100 percent of its fleet.