10 nov 17

Waymo launches America's first self-drive fleet in Phoenix

Google's self-drive sister company Waymo has launched America's first fleet of self-driving cars without backup drivers. Soon, customers will be able to hop aboard one of the self-driving vehicles in the greater Phoenix area. 

The development was announced at a tech conference in Lisbon by Waymo CEO John Krafcik: “Fully self-driving cars are here. This is a big step forward to achieving our ultimate goal: safer roads, and better access to transportation for all”. 

Fully automated

Waymo already operated a fleet of self-driving cars in and around Phoenix, but up until now, each vehicle still had a test driver behind the wheel – in case urgent intervention was needed. After a total of 3.5 million miles driven in test mode, those drivers have now been removed, meaning the vehicles are now in fully automated mode. 

Since the beginning of 2017, a number of participants has been using the Waymo fleet to commute, shop, take the kids to school, and so on. According to Mr. Krafcik, these participants in the earlier phase (with test drivers) will be the first to test the new phase of the project (without test drivers). 

Next stage

“Soon, they’ll be able to make these trips in a fully self-driving car, with Waymo as their chauffeur”, said Mr. Krafcik. 

The CEO also unveiled Waymo's ambition for a next stage of the project – to use the driverless cars as a new ride-hailing service. Customers in need of transportation could whip out their smartphones and summon a fleet of on-demand vehicles to do anything, from commuting to work, getting home from a night out to running errands. 

Waymo is hardly the only company in the self-drive/ride-hailing space, but the impressive progress it is making with its Phoenix project – both in scope and pace – could help set it apart from the others, most of which are either tech companies like Apple, or car manufacturers like BMW and Ford.

Manual mode

It is perhaps fair to say that Uber is Waymo's bitterest rival; both companies are in a legal fight over technology ownership. Like Waymo, Uber runs a major pilot programme in an urban centre – in its case Pittsburgh, where it has clocked up more than a million miles. 

Most test driving is still done with a human 'emergency' driver present. Those are still required to take over. Waymo's own data shows it had to switch from auto to manual mode 124 times during autonomous test drives in California last year – down from 341 time in the previous year. That may be close to perfection, but perhaps not enough for the average user. 

So the Phoenix project is entering an interesting phase: how many “software discrepancies” and “unwanted vehicle maneuvers” will occur in full-autonomous mode? Will the vehicle's emergency systems manage to deal with them safely? And will the customers be spooked or reassured by the way they do?

Authored by: Frank Jacobs