Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Service Is Just About Here
Nearly a decade after beginning life as Google’s self-driving car project—and helping make the idea of driverless cars real—Waymo is now the smallest of steps from launching a commercial service: It has members of the public riding in its retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans, with nobody at the wheel.
In a video Waymo CEO John Krafcik debuted Tuesday at South by Southwest, kids look at their phones, teens take selfies, and adults doze off in a Waymo ride—all common enough sights, but ones that no longer rely on having a human up front, turning the wheel and working the pedals.
These were free, trial drives, more rides around town than trips from A to B, and so they don’t quite qualify as the kind of ride-hailing service Waymo plans to launch later this year. But it means that Waymo is confident that its software and hardware are up to the task of safely and efficiently movingly people around town. It does have humans in remote operations centers who can communicate with passengers and guide the car in complicated situations—like a cop sending cars the wrong way down a one-way street—but they never take actual control of the driving; it’s the car’s job to stay safe.
Waymo already has a permit to run a transportation network company (that’s TNC, what you call a taxi or Uber) in Arizona, and is in the process of adding several thousand robo-minivans to its current, 600-strong, fleet.
The company has not revealed how much it will charge customers, how far its cars will be able to drive and in what conditions, or how it hopes to pull riders away from human-driven businesses like Uber and Lyft. Of course, those companies, along with others like Ford and General Motors, are racing to launch their own services of the self-driving sort within the next few years. GM is a good bet for the silver medal: It has pledged it will go to market sometime in 2019.
Whatever the answers to those questions, Waymo’s intent is clear: cementing its status as the leader and first-to-market in the nascent industry it did so much to create.