Waymo is expanding the number of its driverless cars in Arizona.
PHOENIX – Waymo will allow the general public to download an app and catch a ride in a fully autonomous van — with nobody behind the wheel — in the weeks ahead.
It will be the first time average Janes and Joes can order a ride in the conspicuous Pacifica minivans that buzz around public roads in Chandler, Arizona, and other East Valley cities the way they might use a service like Lyft or Uber.
The launch of this new phase of Waymo’s car service, which begins with a smaller step on Thursday, marks a significant milestone in the company’s march toward offering a fully autonomous ride service.
Waymo, like Google, is a division of California-based Alphabet Inc. The company brought autonomous vehicles to Chandler in 2016 and has incrementally expanded both the area where the cars operate and who is allowed to ride in them.
Since 2017, some of the cars have had nobody behind the wheel, but only for certain tests and select riders.
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Waymo runs two programs in Arizona, one is a ride-share service called Waymo One, and the other is called the Early Rider program.
The fully driverless rides previously were available only to a select group, the Early Riders, who signed nondisclosure agreements.By contrast, the Waymo One commercial service allowed customers to bring friends or family along who had not signed nondisclosure agreements, but backup drivers were present in those vehicles.
That is changing.
Starting Thursday, Waymo One users will “be able to experience the fully autonomous Waymo driver with no human test driver in the driver seat,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said Wednesday. “It’s a really, really big deal, we think, for us and for the world.”
How changes will roll out
Krafcik took reporters through the steps the company will take.
First, the company will allow the “thousands” of Waymo One riders, who also had to be preapproved to be in the program, to ride in a fully autonomous car. They can bring guests, too.
Once the existing Waymo One customers get the opportunity to ride in an autonomous vehicle, which could take weeks, Waymo offers its app to anyone from either Google Play or the Apple App Store.
They can then use the app to hail and pay for a ride in the company’s limited operating area, and take a spin in a car with no human attendant.
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The company would not say whether there would be a cap on participation, but Waymo officials expect demand to outstrip supply.
“I do have this sense … that there is going to be more demand for the service than supply will be able to bring to bear,” Krafcik said. “But we’ll learn from that as we go.”
Krafcik did not discuss prices, but a year ago, during a demonstration for The Republic, a 4-mile, 10-minute ride from the Element Chandler Fashion Center hotel to the Mountainside Fitness at Germann Towne Center cost $8.43 on the Waymo One smartphone app.
Precautions for pandemic
The roll out is happening in the midst of a pandemic, but the company has implemented steps it believes will help keep riders safe.
Krafcik said riders are asked via a checklist to confirm they are healthy, haven’t been exposed to COVID-19, and also will insist on riders wearing masks, which the company can confirm via in-car cameras.
He also said that the air in the cabin is “flushed” multiple times between rides to prevent spreading COVID-19.
Arizona is the only place where Waymo offers the commercial service and the only place it tests fully driverless cars on public roads.
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Waymo has 600 vehicles in its autonomous fleet, and 300-400 of them are in Arizona, Krafcik said.
They operate in a “geofenced” area covering parts of Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert and Ahwatukee.
The fully driverless rides only operate in a portion of the Waymo service area, which the company has previously said is about 50 square miles, or about the size of San Francisco. The entire area where Waymos operate in Arizona is about 100 square miles, Krafcik said.
After giving people the opportunity to experience the fully autonomous rides, Waymo will begin to reintroduce safety drivers in the vehicles, which allows the vehicles to operate in the larger area than those with no safety driver.
“But for, I don’t know, we’ll see, the next several weeks, perhaps a month or more, every ride, 100% of rides with Waymo One, will be fully driverless,” Krafcik said.
Once the safety drivers return, the vehicles carrying passengers will have barriers between the operators and passengers, he said.
Waymo looks to expand road tests
In other company developments, Krafcik said Waymo is looking at California cities where it might launch a second public-road test like the one taking place in Arizona.
In the past year, the company also has equipped about 100 Jaguar I-PACE vehicles with its latest, fifth generation of driving technology at its factory in Detroit, and also launched a trucking operation called Via that the company said is testing on roads in California and Arizona.
Krafcik said in 2021 the Jaguar vehicles should make an appearance on Arizona roads.
We followed Waymo vans for more than 170 miles over several days. Here is what we observed.
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at email@example.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.
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