Look, Ma, No Anything Whatsoever: Waymo Begins Operating Fully Driverless Test Cars on Public Roads
By Pete Bigelow, CAR AND DRIVER
After spending eight years honing its self-driving technology, seven months laying the groundwork for operations, and a month on a final marketing push, Waymo says its cars are ready for a major milestone: truly driverless operations on public roads.
Indeed, officials from Waymo, the company sprung from Google’s self-driving-car project late last year, announced Tuesday that some of their test vehicles are embarking on just those sorts of journeys throughout the metropolitan Phoenix area. No human safety drivers will be on board while the company’s vehicles trundle along public roads. In short, the self-driving era has begun.
The Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans outfitted with Waymo’s technology “can handle any situation, no matter how challenging,” Dmitri Dolgov, vice president of engineering at Waymo, told us when we toured Waymo’s once secret test facility and rode in its driverless vans at an event last week that served as prelude to Tuesday’s news. “Not once, not twice. All the time. That’s the difference between a demonstration and a product.”
Not all the company’s vehicles in the Phoenix area will immediately shift to self-driving travel. It’s unknown exactly how many of the vehicles will operate without safety drivers and how many will retain them; a Waymo spokesperson did not respond to a request for specifics on Tuesday.
But the company has outlined a general cadence in which some cars begin driverless test operations Tuesday and participants in the company’s Early Rider Program will access the cars over the next few months. Their experiences will serve as a precursor to the company’s launch of a commercial service—one that could look a little different from the current ride-hailing model offered by the likes of Uber and Lyft. Waymo officials hinted Tuesday that the service could look a lot like a flexible car-sharing program, in which users can rent a car for a single trip, a day, or a week-long stretch.
That’s a firmer plan than the one articulated only last week by John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer. During the aforementioned media event, which demonstrated the competence of the driverless vehicles at a controlled testing facility in California, he noted that there are a number of business models that make sense, ranging from the “super obvious” ones such as ride-hailing, trucking, and logistics to working with cities to shuttle users from their homes to public-transportation facilities.
Whatever the model, building trust among early users has been a paramount objective. Surveys have shown most Americans are leery of riding in automated vehicles. Earlier this year, three-quarters of respondents told AAA they are afraid to ride in a driverless car, a percentage that has held steady over two years despite increases in awareness of the fledgling technology.
“John Krafcik is asking us to trust him as he
uses public roads as a private laboratory. That’s
simply not good enough.”
—John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog
Those statistics don’t overly concern Krafcik, who announced the latest news Tuesday at a conference in Portugal. “It’s a reasonable starting place, and we have a role to play going forward,” he said.
Waymo has already engaged in such efforts. Last month, it submitted a voluntary safety assessment to federal regulators that offered some details on how its technology functions, how it established safety protocols, and how the vehicles would interact with other users of public roads. Some critics charged that the assessment lacked necessary rigor and amounted to little more than a 43-page marketing brochure. But in the current regulatory environment, which requires nothing at all, Waymo is the only manufacturer thus far known to have submitted a voluntary assessment, and the document is an extensive primer for anyone not familiar with the technology. In addition, last month, Intel, the Silicon Valley tech giant that supplies Waymo with processing power for its onboard computers, released a TV ad that features basketball star LeBron James experiencing his first ride in a driverless vehicle.
Whether that’s enough remains unknown. John Simpson, privacy director at Consumer Watchdog, a California-based nonprofit that has closely tracked the testing of autonomous vehicles, said Waymo and other companies developing autonomous technology need to be more transparent with the public.
“The most recent required public ‘disengagement reports’ in California show Waymo’s robot cars aren’t ready to roam the roads without a human driver monitoring them,” he said. “There is no such public information in Arizona. CEO John Krafcik is asking us to trust him as he uses public roads as a private laboratory. That’s simply not good enough.”
While California’s regulations require certain disclosures, Arizona’s has no such demands. Doug Ducey, the state’s governor, enabled autonomous operations by signing an executive order in August 2015, and he has aggressively courted self-driving-vehicle business.
To date, none of those efforts are larger than Waymo’s. The company has already received at least 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and ordered 500 more. Company officials remain tight-lipped on exactly how many have been delivered so far, but when complete, the group of 600 vehicles will form the largest autonomous fleet in the world.
Waymo has further prepared for the arrival of those vehicles by arranging partnerships with the likes of car-rental service Avis and AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the United States, to service and maintain fleets. The AutoNation deal was announced just last week, and that company’s officials said they will provide long-term vehicle maintenance and repairs for Waymo’s self-driving Pacifica fleet and will expand with the company as it adds further brands of vehicles.
Even measured by the rapid pace often demanded by Silicon Valley, technology in the self-driving-car realm is advancing quickly. It was only a little more than two years ago, in October 2015, when it launched a one-off controlled test with a driverless car along public streets in Austin, Texas. Now Waymo is preparing to deploy hundreds of minivans with similar technology on public roads.
For Krafcik, a one-time executive at Ford and Hyundai, the readiness of the public to accept that future became clear once he showcased the technology for someone he considered one of its toughest skeptics. “My 98-year-old mom could not believe this thing could actually work,” he said. “It took her 15 seconds to display confidence in the technology. Now she’s wondering when it would be done, so she can have a ride to Kohl’s.”