From here on out, if you see a car without a driver meandering around suburban Phoenix, don’t be alarmed: It’s just Google's Waymo division testing its new driverless taxis - the first of their kind to be tested on US roads without the supervision of a “safety driver."
Wayno has revealed that - effective immediately - it will begin testing the driverless taxis - referred to in technologist parlance as a “level 5” driverless vehicle - in Chandler, Arizona. Thew news represents an important milestone that establishes Waymo as the leader in automated driving technology. Waymo CEO John Krafcik made the announcement Tuesday during in a speech at a web summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
“We want the experience of traveling with Waymo to be routine, so you want to use our driver for your everyday needs,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer, said at the Web Summit conference in Portugal. “Fully self-driving cars are here."
According to Ars Technica, for the last year, Waymo has offered free taxi rides to ordinary people who live near the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. Until recently, the company's modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans had a Waymo employee in the driver's seat ready to take control if the car malfunctioned.
One reason the company is so confident in its techonology, as Bloomberg points out, is the Alphabet subsidiary has racked up more autonomous test miles on roads than others developing the tech, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors’ Cruise Automation unit and Uber. However, Google’s rivals have certain advantages that may ultimately help them beat Waymo to market. For example, Uber has a massive customer network that depends on its drivers for rides. And Ford and GM have the manufacturing capabilities to crank out new units with very little delay.
And by the looks of it, Waymo is gearing up to challenge Uber by using its service to begin offering rides. Krafcik, a former Ford executive, said that an on-demand service would be the first commercial use case for Waymo. During his appearance at the summit in Lisbon, he also discussed how the vehicles may replace personal car ownership, a nightmare scenario for OEMs like Ford and GM.
“Because you’re accessing vehicles rather than owning, in the future, you could choose from an entire fleet of vehicle options that are tailored to each trip you want to make,” Krafcik said, according to a transcript of his remarks. People could claim the cars for a day, a week “or even longer,” he said. He ticked off the ways driverless cars could be redesigned if the vehicle didn’t need space for a driver: to ferry groceries, as a “personal dining room” or for naps.
Waymo began testing its taxi service in Phoenix back in April. It’s progress shows how Google has played to its strengths by building the best technology available. However, the question of scalability still remains.
As the New York Times points out, driverless cars are regulated by a patchwork of state laws. Arizona, like many states, has no restrictions against operating an autonomous vehicle without a person in the driver’s seat. On the other hand, California, where Waymo is headquartered, requires any self-driving car to have a safety driver sitting in the front.
However, just because Waymo can legally test these cars, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been optimized for safety. In December, Waymo published a report for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles about how frequently its driverless cars “disengaged” because of a system failure or safety risk and forcing a human driver to take over. In the report, Waymo said this happened once every 5,000 miles the cars drove in 2016, compared with once every 1,250 miles in 2015. While that’s certainly an improvement, these types of incidents are hardly rare.
So, the question is, how will Waymo handle these situations when they inevitably start cropping up (indeed, if they haven’t already)? We imagine given all the publicity around several high profile cases of deadly car accidents involving Tesla’s autopilot software, that the company has planned for these risks - or at least, we hope they have.
And we’re not the only ones. Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Alphabet, said that data demonstrated that the cars are not ready to drive without any human intervention and that Waymo was following the Silicon Valley model of “beta testing” a new technology on the public - to a potentially dangerous end.
“It’s the wrong approach when you’re dealing with self-driving cars,” said John M. Simpson, a director at Consumer Watchdog. “When things go wrong with a robot car, you kill people."
To be sure, researchers believe self-driving cars can be safer than cars operated by human drivers because they are programmed to adhere strictly to traffic laws, they don’t get distracted, and they don’t take unnecessary risks.
But that reality is a long way off.
Then again, who are we - the public - to stand in the way of progress? The tech gods of Silicon Valley have spoken, and they’ve said we will have autonomous vehicles commercially available by 2025 - which is ludicrously soon, considering where the technology is right now. Because the reality is this technology needs to function flawlessly by the time it’s put in the hands of the consumer.
Of course, regardless of the cost in lives and damage, once the technology is ready, the world will understand that it was all worth it.
In a bit about driverless cars, Stephen Colbert once joked that they’re “a high tech alternative to dropping a brick on the gas peddle and jumping in the back seat.”
Given Waymo’s safety record. That bit might prove eerily prescient.