Waymo, the former self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Google parent company Alphabet, has become the first company to deploy fully autonomous vehicles on public roads without a driver behind the wheel.About 100 of the company’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans are now driving around Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, without a human test driver—a move that catapults Waymo ahead of its competitors.
Waymo has been testing the self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans on public roads in Chandler since 2016. But the vehicles have always had a human test driver behind the wheel. Waymo CEO John Krafick shared the company’s milestone during a speech Tuesday at the Lisbon Web Summit.For now, these fully self-driving minivans—sans human test driver—are limited to a defined “geo-fenced” area. This means the vehicles can only drive in a specific geographic area. The self-driving cars are completing all aspects of driving however, such as the more complicated left-hand turns.
The area will expand and eventually cover a large portion of the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, about 600 square miles. Waymo is going to let people, not just Google employees, ride in these self-driving minivans, Krafcik said, adding that the company is also going to launch a driverless ride-hailing service.“We’re now working on making this commercial service available to the public,” Krafcik said. “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.” The first users will be part of Waymo’s early rider program, which launched in April in the Phoenix area. Until now, “early riders” who have hailed their self-driving minivan using an app have always had a human test driver in the vehicle.
“This wasn’t just a one-time ride or a demo,” Krafcik said. “What you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology.” Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny is an ardent supporter of Waymo’s testing in the area. “This research and development taking place in our community will ultimately make our roads safer and provide new freedom for those unable to drive,”Tibshraeny said. “I look forward to a continued partnership with Waymo as they continue to develop this technology here in Chandler and throughout the region.”Waymo has been working towards this moment for months. Industry insiders, or anyone tracking the company’s recent moves, likely have predicted the company would pull human test drivers out of its vehicles before the end of 2017. Since launching its early rider program in April, Waymo formed an alliance with ride-hailing company Lyft, issued a safety report outlining how it plans to navigate the risks of self-driving vehicles, and revealed more about its technology. The company also invested $1 billion into Lyft. In late October, Waymo brought several dozen reporters, including one from Fortune, to its Castle testing facility in Atwater, Calif. There, the company showed off the inside of its self-driving minivans, including a user interface that provide visual and audio cues to riders.
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