- Waymo, the self-driving-car company spun out of Google, is allowing residents in Arizona to hail its driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The cars will operate entirely on their own; there won’t be a driver sitting behind the wheel. Uber has similar pilots in Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona, but keeps a safety driver up front.
Waymo, the self-driving-car company spun out of Google, just made a huge move to rival Uber in the driverless-car arms race.
Waymo said Tuesday that select people in Arizona can now hitch a ride in one of the company’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The effort mimics the ones launched by Uber in Pittsburgh and Tempe, Arizona, but Waymo will differentiate itself by not having a human driver sit behind the wheel.
That’s right: people will be able to ride in a completely driverless car for the first time.
“Now, in an area of the Phoenix metro region, a subset of our fleet will operate in fully autonomous mode, with Waymo as the sole driver,” Waymo said in the Medium post. “Over time, we’ll cover a region that’s larger than the size of Greater London, and we’ll add more vehicles as we grow.”
Waymo said its driverless cars will be available to transport passengers to work, to an evening out on the town or to take kids to school, among other uses. The company did not provide specifics about how many cars will initially be part of the ride-hailing fleet, or whether passengers will have to pay for the service.
The driverless minivans are equipped with screens in the back seat that provide passengers with information such as the speed limit in the area, or a quick message to explain that the car is “yielding to pedestrians.” When the car arrives at its destination, the screen reads “We’re here,” according to Business Insider’s Troy Wolverton, who took a test ride in one of the Chrysler minivans in October.
Going after Uber’s bread and butter
The move signals the increasing competition between Waymo and Uber, both in developing driverless cars and in the ride-hailing business that Uber pioneered.
Waymo said that it also expects that self-driving cars will one day be sold to individuals. But “by giving people access to a fleet of vehicles, rather than starting with a personal ownership model, more people will be able to experience this technology, sooner,” it said in the Medium post.
Residents in Pittsburgh have been able to hail a self-driving Uber since September 2016, but all of the cars have a safety driver and engineer sitting upfront. Uber has a similar pilot running in Tempe, but it’s attempt to launch a program in San Francisco was shut down after a public feud with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Waymo said the vehicles are equipped with safety features like backup steering and braking to ensure the rides go smoothly. According to Ars Technica, the cars will also have a Waymo employee in the back to observe and to push the “pull over” button if something goes wrong.
Waymo has already been conducting tests in Phoenix allowing some residents to ride in its self-driving vehicles as part of its “early riders” program. Those riders will be the first ones allowed to hail the robotaxis before Waymo expands access to the general public.
Waymo spun out of Google’s self-driving-car project that was launched back in 2009. The Waymo cars have driven more than 3.5 million miles on public roads across 20 different US cities. The technology on the cars still faces challenges in certain conditions like snow and rain, which is one reason why the initial pilot project is taking place in Arizona.
Here’s a video of the self-driving car in action that Waymo posted on Tuesday: