Waymo Gets the Go to Launch 1st Driverless Ride-Sharing Program
Service set to begin within the year in Phoenix area, then expand to other markets.
By Paul E. Einstein, THE DETROIT BUREAU
February 19, 2018
Waymo, the autonomous ride-sharing service spun off by Google, has gotten permission to launch a commercial ride-sharing service that will completely eliminate human drivers.
The company has confirmed receiving a permit from the Arizona Department of Transportation and is now expecting to launch service using a small fleet of modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in the Phoenix area. It has been operating a pilot program in the Phoenix area for the past year using autonomous vehicles that still had a backup “operator” behind the wheel ready to take control in an emergency.
“As we continue to test-drive our fleet of vehicles in greater Phoenix, we’re taking all the steps necessary to launch our commercial service this year,” a Waymo spokesman told TheDetroitBureau.com.
Initially, the venture is expected to focus on the same 100 square mile area where Waymo now operates what it dubbed an “early rider program.” But the company recently said it plans to expand operations to a number of other cities.
Waymo claims to have “thousands” of users for its Phoenix pilot. They had to volunteer to ride in the company’s autonomous minivans, using a smartphone app to call for a ride. But the payoff was that the service was free.
Waymo is now expected to charge for the commercial service, though it has not revealed its pricing plans. It could try to match competitors like Lyft and Uber, but it may also use the project to take advantage of what CEO John Krafcik and others have claimed will be the long-term advantage of driverless vehicles.
Drivers are the highest cost of operating a conventional taxi or ride-sharing service – with services like Lyft charging $1.40 per mile, compared to an average $0.80 per mile for a motorist who uses their own vehicle. But proponents of fully driverless technology contend they can drop costs so low that it would be cheaper to use a ride-sharing service, in part because services like Waymo would keep their vehicles operating 24/7.
If the technology proves viable, researchers forecast millions of Americans may abandon owning a private vehicle in the future. A recent Boston Consulting Group study forecast that at least 20% of the miles Americans clock on the road by 2030 will be in driverless ride-share vehicles.
A separate study by Navigant Research released this year named Waymo as one of the leaders in the push to go driverless.
It was one of the first companies to begin experimenting with self-driving vehicle technology and Ruth Porat, the CFO of parent company Alphabet said it has already clocked “more than 4 million miles test driven in the real world in seven states (and) 25 U.S. cities.” In a statement, she added that it is adding another 10,000 miles daily while continuing to clock “billions of miles” in its computer simulators.
Nonetheless, industry analysts expect Waymo to be held under the microscope as it moves from an autonomous pilot project with volunteer riders to a commercial operator of fully driverless vehicles competing directly with for-pay services like Uber, Lyft and local taxi companies.
For one thing, Waymo faces the prospect of soon having some serious competition, General Motors late last year asking the U.S. government for permission to begin rolling out a fleet of fully driverless Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles. While GM has not specifically outlined its plans it is widely expected it will use some of those vehicles in its own Maven vehicle-sharing service, and possibly provide others to Lyft the ride-sharing service in which it now owns a large stake.
For its part, Waymo currently operates about 600 specially modified Pacifica minivans. Late last month it announced plans to purchase “thousands” more from Chrysler, the tech company’s CEO Krafcik stating, “we’ve moved from research and development to operations and deployment.”
Not everyone is pleased with the rapid pace of development, however. Critics, including former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook and California-based non-profit Consumer Watchdog have asked federal and state regulators to slow things down and rely more on testing on private tracks. They fear both autonomous and fully driverless technologies are not nearly as advanced as claimed. They also point to a series of crashes involving various self-driving prototypes.
For its part, Waymo said it has been involved in around 20 incidents, though its vehicles have been blamed for causing just one minor crash.