Eight years after launching its self-driving “moon shot,” Waymo, a k a Google’s driverless car company, is having its Neil Armstrong moment.
The company is now running its autonomous minivans around Phoenix with no human inside to grab the wheel if things go bad, CEO John Krafcik announced Tuesday. And in just a few months, it will invite passengers to climb aboard the world’s first driverless ride-hailing service.
This launch brings up a host of unanswered questions about the details and practical elements of such a service, but what’s already clear is Waymo is taking one of the final steps on the long road toward taking the human driver out of the picture and finally cashing in on the profits and safety benefits that come with the transition to robot chauffeurs.
“Fully self-driving cars are here,” Krafcik said at Web Summit in Lisbon, where he announced the move.
Waymo took its first driverless spin on public roads in October 2015, when it was still officially part of Google. (In December 2015, it launched as a stand-alone company under the umbrella of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.) Steve Mahan, a blind man, took a solo, 10-minute ride around Austin, Texas in the company’s “pod car,” the funky one without a steering wheel or pedals (Waymo retired those cars this summer in favor of its minivans).
The difference here, Krafcik says, is that the cars prowling Phoenix sans humans aren’t part of a demo. “What you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo,” he said in Lisbon.
Indeed, this is a massive step toward the driverless future Waymo/Google has been pursuing since starting this project in 2009. The company has been toting select riders around the Phoenix metro area since April, but with safety drivers at the wheel to make sure everything stays on track. Now, those drivers are coming out.
And once you’ve taken the driver out, putting a rider in becomes something like an afterthought. “The difference between those two things is relatively slight,” Krafcik told reporters last week. “You’ve still got a fully driverless car interacting with the world, all of the other human-driven cars, pedestrians and cyclists and other things that are on the road at the same time.”
In other words, the technology has to be damn near perfect to get to this point. Then it’s just a matter of buttoning things up—and reaping the safety benefits and dollars that come with it.
Waymo is also experimenting with self-driving trucks and will consider selling autonomous technology straight to automakers who want to implement it in their vehicles, but a ride-hailing service makes sense as a starting point.
OK, here’s the part where we go over all the things that aren’t quite clear. Waymo hasn’t disclosed how much territory its cars will cover or what kind of hours they will run, whether it will charge passengers for rides, or the timeline for announcing or figuring out any of that. (Company reps recently declined to give any such details for the existing early rider program in Phoenix.)
It’s also unclear if there’s a system for preventing a freaked-out passenger from clambering into the driver’s seat and grabbing control of the car—or how that would affect questions like insurance, if they then caused a crash. Waymo hasn’t shared clear plans for helping autonomous cars find the people they’re supposed to be picking up—which you know is a problem if you’ve ever been on the phone with an Uber driver, insisting I’m right here on the dot!
Then there are the bigger questions, less specific to Waymo: How do you insure this sort of service? (Larry Burns, a former GM exec and onetime adviser to Google’s self-driving project, has suggested operators might provide insurance themselves, at least until the technology is proven enough for regular insurers to get into it.) How do you regulate it? How does that change if Congress and President Trump agree on a national system for governing autonomous driving? How do you ensure the cars can handle all the craziness of roads populated by unpredictable humans? What happens when the weather suddenly turns nasty?
Starting in Arizona lets Waymo dodge some of these questions, at least for now. The weather is good, the roads aren’t too crazy or complicated, and self-driving cars don’t need any special permissions to hit the road there. “There’s no oversight that we provide,” says Matt Burdick, a spokesperson for the city of Chandler, just outside Phoenix, where the cars are running. The city has given Waymo detailed maps of its streets and its traffic signal timing data. “They got a permit to do some of the filming, but not for the testing.” (You can see the result of that filming, Waymo’s latest promo video, below)
Once Waymo is up and running in Arizona, it will gradually expand its service area to cover a 600-square mile swath around Phoenix, Krafcik says. Then comes the possibly never-ending slog to bring this kind of service to other cities, states, and countries. But once you’re standing on the moon, the rest of the solar system looks a lot closer.