Look, Ma, No Driver! Waymo Robot Cars In Arizona Go Fully Autonomous
By Carolyn Said, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
November 7, 2017
In a major milestone for autonomous vehicles, Waymo has ditched the back-up drivers for its robot cars in and around Chandler, Ariz., and soon will offer them to the public as an autonomous taxi fleet.
“Fully self-driving cars are here,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said at the Web Summit in Lisbon, according to the prepared text of his speech. “With Waymo in the driver’s seat, we can reimagine many different types of transportation, from ride-hailing and logistics, to public transportation and personal vehicles, too.”
Waymo’s retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans are now doing autonomous test drives on public roads within a 100-square-mile area of the Phoenix suburb. Eventually that will expand to the entire sprawling Phoenix region, according to the company, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet. For now, the plug-in hybrids still have a Waymo employee aboard but in a back seat.
“This is a huge leap forward; it’s akin to stepping on the moon,” said Michael Ramsey, research director at Gartner. “If you’re going to literally have no one driving and go at higher speeds, you are moving past the academic research project stage and straight into the commercialization stage.”
Waymo soon will give rides to civilian passengers in the driverless cars, starting with the families who participate in its Early Rider test program in which they sign up to get autonomous rides to all their daily destinations. Then it will deploy the fully autonomous cars in a ride-hailing service for the public, although it didn’t specify a time frame.
“People will get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles, to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, or run errands,” Krafcik said
Waymo, the first major player to tackle self-driving cars, has been working on them since 2009 and has logged more than 3.5 million autonomous miles on public roads in 20 U.S. cities and 10 million miles a day in a virtual simulator, more than any other company. Its early success spurred a race among automakers, tech companies and startups to develop robot cars. But analysts had said Waymo was lagging in devising a business model and warned that rivals might overtake it.
That no longer seems the case.
“There are countless companies taking small steps as they chase similar objectives, but Waymo is making massive leaps to ensure it’s the leader,” said Michael Harley, group managing editor for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.
Waymo already drew a line in the sand last week when it invited a few dozen journalists to its secretive Castle test site at a former military base in Merced County, and gave them rides in the fully autonomous cars, allowing them to experience the eerie sensation of seeing a steering wheel turn itself in empty air.
The company showed off robot-to-human interface features to help passengers get comfortable, such as a console with buttons to start the ride and call tech support, and screens showing visualizations of the ride, along with messages about situations like construction and school zones.
Sister company Google gives Waymo significant access to the public.
“Google Maps is ubiquitous on everybody’s phone,” Ramsey said. “Just add a little more functionality and now you’re ordering a vehicle or trip across multiple modes — their transportation or others. It’s easy to imagine a world where they would do that.”
Waymo said it takes many safety precautions, including redundant systems for all its sensors and the car’s computer “brain.” But some consumer advocates said that isn’t enough and charged it with using people as guinea pigs.
Consumer Watchdog asked whether Waymo is releasing its robot cars in “beta” mode to tweak them while they’re being used. “That’s one thing, when you’re talking about Gmail and maybe losing an email or two,” said John Simpson, privacy project director. “It’s the wrong approach when you’re dealing with self-driving cars. When things go wrong with a robot car, you kill people.”
But those kinds of concerns haven’t been an issue in Arizona. The state has become a mecca for companies testing self-driving cars, for reasons of both geography and regulation — or lack thereof. Uber, for instance, has operated a robot taxi service in Tempe, Ariz., since February in addition to a similar service it started in Pittsburgh, Pa., last September. Both services have back-up drivers behind the wheel.
Arizona cities’ mild climate, flat terrain and gridlike street design ease navigation for the vehicles, while the state’s hands-off approach to regulations for self-driving cars smooth the way to start testing.
“The feedback has been very positive,” said Matt Burdick, spokesman for Chandler, a city of 250,000 that prides itself on being a hub for tech and entrepreneurial companies. No residents have complained about the Waymo cars, he said.
“The state and city of Chandler have a unified approach that allows for business to have real ease of operating,” said Micah Miranda, economic development director. “They know what they’ll get when they come to Chandler; it’s very pro-business.”
Waymo and many other companies pursuing self-driving cars have complicated networks of connections. For instance, Waymo’s parent Alphabet last month led a $1 billion investment in ride-hailing service Lyft, which recently ramped up work on its own self-driving technology. Google Ventures was an early investor in Lyft rival Uber, but now Waymo is suing Uber for allegedly stealing some of its self-driving technology secrets.