Waymo, the spin-off self-driving division born out of Alphabet last year, has today announced that it is taking to the roads of Phoenix, Arizona for its first major and large-scale public trials. The company is now planning to pick up real passengers (i.e families, students, and other professionals) using its autonomous vehicles — whenever and wherever they want one.
As mentioned in the Medium blog post, Waymo has been testing its vehicles on public roads with a handful of families for the last two months. This enabled the company to learn more about the needs and wants of potential customers of its self-driving service. Thus, it is now ready to kick-start its very first public trials in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Waymo is calling out to you to sign up on their website to take any number of free rides in their autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Called the Early Rider Program, Waymo is expanding the scope of its trials to not only collect even more data but also gather much-needed feedback from the future users of this service. It will select the users, who sign up to access the service, based on their type of trips and their willingness to use the self-driving service as their primary mode of transportation – because the tech is not perfect just yet.
Talking about the public pilot program in an official blog post, John Crafcik, CEO of Waymo said:
Over the course of this trial, we’ll be accepting hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds and transportation needs who want to ride in and give feedback about Waymo’s self-driving cars.
Rather than offering people one or two rides, the goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco.
Waymo is currently looking for early testers in parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. Any household in these areas can apply for becoming a member of the program and will be eligible to drive in the company’s existing fleet of Lexus RX450h and new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. The service is free of cost and you’ll be accompanied by a human engineer who’ll be behind the wheel at all times. They will keep human invention to the minimum and will only take over the vehicle when it isn’t able to conclude the path or nears an accident.
With the beginning of this rider program, Google expects to onboard hundreds of new testers. Thus, it has now decided to expand its autonomous vehicle fleet six-fold. It has already outfitted 100 Pacifica minivans with its self-driving hardware and software and now plans to add another 500 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to its fleet. This will be an important move on Google’s part as it will enable them to ferry more individuals in an area where regulations are a bare-minimum as compared to say — California.
Our early riders will play an important role in shaping the way we bring self-driving technology into the world — through personal cars, public transportation, ride-hailing, logistics and more.
While Alphabet’s Waymo may be late to the self-driving public trial party, this is a significant development for the company. This is also the case because Waymo is currently embroiled in a legal battle to take Uber’s autonomous vehicles off road. It has accused the ride-hailing giant of infringing on their LiDAR sensor technology, which their former star executive Anthony Levandowski brought along with his self-driving trucking startup Otto’s acquisition.
In their claims during the court meetings, Waymo has accused Levandowski and a cohort of other employees of quitting the division with confidential info in tow. It is believed that he left with over 9.7 GB worth of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files, and testing documentation – all amounting to around 14,000. He has pledged his fifth amendment rights but the court is not very keen on accepting the same.
With Uber’s self-driving public tests caught in jeopardy (and even some accidents), we will have to wait and witness how successful Waymo’s autonomous minivans will be on road. Google should definitely have an upper hand, courtesy of its decade-long research and development effort.