Waymo’s First Commercial Self-driving Service Launches in Phoenix

We’ve arrived. It’s officially #TheFuture.

After years of talk within the auto industry, Waymo says it will become the first company to offer a commercial taxi service using autonomous vehicles when the program launches in Arizona today. Called Waymo One, the Google subsidiary plans to offer the first batch of rides to the 400 individuals who participated in the firm’s pilot program. Afterwards, the service will be expanded to more riders in a broader area.

As with the company’s early rider program, Waymo wants to keep the launch small to assess demand while continuing the company’s testing in an environment it feels comfortable with. Based on the growing assumption that autonomous vehicles can’t handle inclement weather, Arizona seems like the perfect place to keep working out the bugs.

Similarly, public complaints have indicated Waymo’s fleet of Chrysler Pacificas may not yet be perfected

While Waymo seems to think it’s progressed to a point that warrants the expansion, it plans to retain the services of human safety drivers for now. It’s not clear how long they’ll be needed, though the company has offered driverless rides through its early rider program before. It also started a pilot project offering delivery services with Walmart earlier this year and partnered with AutoNation and Avis Budget Group on fleet maintenance in 2017.

“We’re taking the next step in our journey with the introduction of our commercial self-driving service,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s CEO, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. “Self-driving technology is new to many, so we’re proceeding carefully with the comfort and convenience of our riders in mind.”

Customers gain access via the Waymo One app. Vehicles are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will cart patrons across several cities in the Metro Phoenix area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. Riders will see price estimates before they accept the trip based on factors like the time and distance to their destination, like with Uber or Lyft. Passenger groups are limited to up to three adults and a child.

Waymo will also provide a help line within the app and in-car consoles for confused customers. While likely unnecessary during the initial phase, the firm believes they’ll become more useful as it transitions away from human safety drivers.

In conjunction with the launch, the company recently released a promotional video that makes normal driving look like an absolute nightmare. It’s filled with tag lines like “what if getting there felt like being there” and “this is where we’re going” while calling its vehicles “the world’s most-experienced rider.”

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While we’re willing to agree that this qualifies as the world’s first autonomous ride-hailing service, there are a lot of caveats that accompany the claim. Firstly, this feels more like an expansion of what Waymo was already offering, rather than the launch of a new product. It’s also still dependent on human safety drivers. That’s likely a wise decision, but it also doesn’t make this feel like a finished product. Waymo is obviously still testing and will probably put the program through its paces for several more years before the taxi service is offered nationally.

That’s likely the point, though. Waymo One allows Alphabet/Google to test the logistics surrounding ride hailing and prod the market. Achievements aside, the firm is still only at phase one of a truly monumental endeavor.

[Images: Waymo]

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