Waymo expects to quietly rolls out a commercial, autonomous ride-hailing service early next month, a new report claims, making it the first such service to open itself up to paying customers.
The company, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, has tested a fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids in Arizona for some time, recently bringing a group of non-paying riders on board for free test trips in the Phoenix area. Now, it’s time for the real show to start, albeit slowly.
According to a closely connected source who spoke to Bloomberg, the first commercial Waymo service will launch under new branding in Phoenix in early December. Assuming users are brave enough to trust their lives to a barely regulated array of sensors, cameras, and associated software, the service would provide a ride home that doesn’t involve wondering whether to attempt small talk with an Uber or Lyft driver.
The name of the new brand isn’t yet known, but Waymo apparently has no big plans for a grand announcement. It’s possible a major milestone in autonomous driving might pass with a whimper. Bloomberg‘s source claims would-be customers won’t be able to download an app and summon a ghostly Pacifica for a while, leading the publication to believe that the service will roll out only among pre-selected users. Likely, members of the 400 families who took part in the Early Rider Program.
Coverage will also be small, the source claims, with the selected users travelling only in a 100-square mile area around the Phoenix suburbs. A slow phase-in of riders and vehicles will follow. After that, new cities await.
The safety challenges facing early self-driving vehicle developers are already well known. This spring, the Phoenix area became the site of the first fatality of the self-driving era. That collision, still under investigation, left a 49-year-old pedestrian dead and Uber’s autonomous testing program on ice. The company’s only just now trying to get things started again in Pittsburgh.
While Waymo touts its commitment to safety, there’s potential drawbacks to a vehicle that always drives by the book. A video shot this past summer appeared to show a Waymo self-driving Pacifica becoming flummoxed while trying to merge onto a Phoenix-area freeway. For the commercial launch, the source cited plans to place a safety driver on board each vehicle, even though the minivans will drive themselves for the vast majority of the time. The number of vehicles “equipped” with human monitors will decrease over time, until there are none.
Regardless of the technological challenges and safety risks, the race to become a frontrunner in the autonomous race carries with it the promise of big bucks. Morgan Stanley analysts claim the unnamed ride-hailing service already carries a valuation of $80 billion. Compared to its technological rivals, Waymo appears determined to avoid bad PR in its bid for long-term success.