Waymo, the self-driving vehicle technology unit of Google parent Alphabet, is relaunching and expanding access to its fully driverless robotaxi service around Phoenix. Current members of the Waymo One ride-hailing service will now have access to driverless robotaxis and in a few weeks anyone who downloads the Waymo app will too.
In other noteworthy changes, riders can now bring along family and friends, although it’ll be interesting to see how that goes with the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re finally allowed to talk about the experience. Previously, riders were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before riding around in the autonomous vehicles. Waymo must be uber confident in its technology if its now taking the muzzles off its riders.
The general public might still have to wait a bit. The company said it’ll give first dibs to Waymo One users who have yet to ride in a driverless vehicle.
“In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless. 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,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a statement. “Later this year, after we’ve finished adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and the rear passenger cabin for in-vehicle hygiene and safety, we’ll also be re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area.”
Waymo’s autonomous vehicles operate in a 100-square-mile area of Phoenix, but the fully driverless rides will take place in a 50-square-mile area in the suburbs of Chandler, Tempe, and Mesa.
Waymo has been testing its autonomous vehicles in Phoenix since early 2017. In early 2018, it said it would launch a fully driverless robotaxi service by the end of the year. It did launch Waymo One in December 2018, but each vehicle was equipped with a human safety driver, and the service was limited to a small group.
Where does Waymo go next?
Waymo’s rollout of its robotaxi service has been slower than expected, and it has yet to say where it will take the service next. But perhaps Krafcik dropped a hint in this comment to Reuters: “You can imagine we’d love the opportunity to bring the Waymo One driver to our home state of California.”
Waymo has been testing in California for years. Although many believe the statistics are flawed, it always leads the way when it comes to the disengagement reports from the California DMV. Waymo has also tested in several other locations, including Florida, Michigan, and Washington State. The company also tests its autonomous trucks in Texas.
The Northeastern United States would be much harder with the snowy winters. Perhaps Las Vegas is a dark horse. Motional, the newly named autonomous driving venture between Hyundai and Aptiv, has been running a robotaxi pilot service in Las Vegas for a couple of years now. The service has provided more than 100,000 rides, but the cars are equipped with human safety drivers. Motional’s CTO, Laura Major, joined The Robot Report Podcast this week, which you can listen to above. Skip ahead to the 47:56 mark to hear the robotaxi discussion.
Wherever the Waymo One fully driverless service goes next, it’s going to be a while. It took Waymo three-plus years to open up its service for a 50-square-mile area around Phoenix. It also cost Alphabet a pretty penny to get Waymo to this point. Waymo recently raised $3 billion from outside investors, the first time it raised capital.
One thing, however, remains clear: Waymo continues to lead the robotaxi race.