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Waymo to launch driverless ride-hailing service to public in Arizona

Image credit: Waymo

Waymo, the driverless car unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is planning to open up its driverless ride-hailing service to the US public in the city of Phoenix, Arizona.

The Silicon Valley company said it will start offering rides in minivans with no human attendant on board to current members of its Waymo One service in the Phoenix area. Within a few weeks, Waymo plans to open access to anyone who downloads its smartphone app and wants a ride within a 50-square-mile area of the city. 

Waymo chief John Krafcik said, during a conference call, that the company will offer only rides in driverless cars for now. Waymo intends to subsequently extend the service for a larger 100-square-mile swathe of the Phoenix area, using Pacifica minivans made by business partner Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The firm also stressed that some of the vans in Phoenix will still have attendants on board. 

Waymo has not said where or when it will expand its robot-taxi business beyond Phoenix. “You can imagine we’d love the opportunity to bring the Waymo One driver to our home state of California,” Krafcik remarked.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced Waymo to suspend operations earlier this year, the firm was using vehicles with no human attendant on board to provide 5-10 per cent out of a total of 1,000 to 2,000 rides per week in its Phoenix service zone, Krafcik explained. Rides in fully autonomous vehicles, however, were limited to a small, selected group of its customers.

Companies across Silicon Valley are racing to make self-driving cars a reality, a technological moonshot that would make the economics of ride-hailing much more lucrative by sparing the expense of human drivers.

So far, progress has been slow as many companies have delayed their rollouts and extended their timelines, confronted by the challenge of programming cars to respond to the near-infinite stream of scenarios a driver could face. The pandemic threw a further wrench into the companies’ plans.

According to Krafcik, although demand for ride-hailing services of all kinds has stagnated because of the pandemic, Waymo has stepped-up attention to the sanitation of its vehicles in response. 

Waymo will monitor vans remotely and employees will remind customers to keep masks on in the vehicles. Vehicles will be cleaned regularly under a maintenance and fleet management partnership with auto retailer AutoNation Inc. Fiat Chrysler has engineered a system that can flush the air from a minivan after every ride, he added.

The field of companies trying to develop self-driving vehicles has been consolidating as technology and regulatory challenges pushed the prospects of significant revenue from carrying passengers further into the future.

Waymo and other autonomous vehicle technology companies have put an increased focus on automating commercial vehicles for goods delivery. The company’s rival Zoox was acquired earlier this year by Amazon. Ride-hailing company Uber Technologies was set back by a fatal accident involving one of its test vehicles in Arizona in March 2018. 

The US Congress has failed to act on proposals to create standards and safety regulations which the industry can rely on as a legal shield when deploying self-driving vehicles.

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