Last month, self-driving company Waymo began operating autonomous minivans on public roads in Arizona, in tests that were conducted without a safety driver "or any human at all" behind the steering wheel. Today, the Google-owned company announced it's now beginning the first steps toward launching a ride-hailing service backed by a fleet of completely self-driving vehicles (via The Verge).
To start, Waymo will begin testing the autonomous driving service with its employees in Chandler, Arizona, then expand to members of Waymo's Early Rider program before finally seeing a public launch in the town sometime in the next few months. Users will hail the vans through the Waymo app and when they arrive there won't be any safety drivers or other humans in the driver's seat, but a Waymo employee will still sit in the backseat.
The test vans will be able to travel anywhere within a geofenced 100-square-mile radius of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. While there are understandable caveats to Waymo's ride hailing service tests, it is notable as the company's first time achieving Level 4 autonomy, where a vehicle is expected to perform "safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip" without someone behind the wheel.
The next step for Waymo is a big one: a commercial ride-hail service, in which riders can hail one of the company’s autonomous minivans via an app like Uber or Lyft. “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 has been testing its self-driving vans in Arizona because the state's laws regulating autonomous tests "are practically non-existent." Arizona lacks regulation that requires companies to publicly disclose accidents involving its autonomous vehicles, and various other potential self-driving related incidents, like the number of times a human driver was forced to take the wheel.
According to Chandler's mayor Jay Tibshraeny, "Waymo's work here in Chandler is groundbreaking as they work toward their goal of fully autonomous vehicles. At the same time, this research and development taking place in our community will ultimately make our roads safer and provide new freedom for those unable to drive."
Waymo has multiple competitors in the self-driving market, previously engaging in a legal dispute with Uber earlier in 2017. In February, Waymo accused Uber of stealing Waymo's own self-driving LIDAR system, and then a few months later, Uber fired the engineer accused of stealing the self-driving secrets from Waymo.
For Apple, the Cupertino company has reportedly scaled back its vehicle-related ambitions, with the most recent reports detailing the development of an autonomous service that would shuttle employees around its campus.