This is super-duper exciting! Waymo is several years ahead of everybody else developing self-driving cars, but until now their vehicles have been off-limits to the general public. I see them scooting around Mountain View all the time, but the only way I can get a ride in one is to pull a favor from a friend who works there.
Now Waymos will be open, albeit in very small initial numbers, to anybody in Phoenix, via Lyft’s network.
This announcement also makes Phoenix the second place in the world, alongside Lyft’s partnership with Aptiv in Las Vegas, where a member of the general public can hail a self-driving robotaxi. They still come with safety drivers, but it’s nonetheless a big step forward.
MarketWatch reports that Waymo will create 400 jobs at the site, which is meaningful, but also not game-changing. This seems primarily like an expansion of Waymo’s existing facility in nearby Novi, Michigan. The goal is probably to do the same type of work on more vehicles, not to fundamentally expand the scope of operation.
By all appearances, Waymo purchases what are essentially off-the-shelf Chrysler Pacifica and Jaguar I-PACE vehicles, and bring them to this facility to convert them into autonomous vehicles.
I might imagine there are a lot of similarities between the work Waymo does in Michigan and the work AutonomouStuff has been doing in Peoria, Illinois, for years. To become a self-driving car, an off-the-shelf vehicle needs augmented power supplies, new computers, a lot more sensors, and a substantial amount of wiring.
That takes a lot of work, especially if Waymo plans to do that for tens of thousands of vehicles.
However, Waymo does not appear to be building out a manufacturing plant to build the vehicles themselves. Maybe things will head in that direction eventually, but I’d bet not.
There has been a lot of speculation that the automotive industry will start to look something like the airline industry. Ridesharing companies will purchase vehicles from manufacturers Chrysler, the same way airlines purchase airplanes from manufacturers like Boeing. Then the ridesharing company or airlines outfits the vehicles or airplane to their specification. The latest Waymo news feels like a step in that direction.
* Open one door to prevent the self-driving car from moving * Break a window if doors are locked and immediate entry to the vehicle is necessary * Call Waymo to unlock the doors remotely if there is time Keep at least one door open until the vehicle engine is turned off (Step 7) or 12V Cut Loop under the hood is cut (Step 8)
There are several more options that require scissors, with pictures, all for emergency responders.
With self-driving cars already being tested in cities across the United States and in several parts of the world, there have been three big questions about how quickly self-driving cars would expand:
How quickly will the geofences around the (usually urban) test areas expand?
When will companies open their services to the general public?
How soon will companies pull the test driver from the vehicle?
Waymo just went ahead and answered #3. In a blog post and accompanying video (above), Waymo just announced that they have pulled the driver out of the seat on a subset of their test vehicles in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area.
This looks like the latest step in a campaign by Waymo to both step forward in their self-driving efforts, and reassure the public that everything will be okay. And it looks like everything will be okay.
A few thoughts of my own to accompany the Waymo announcement:
This is awesome, and it has the potential to be huge if Waymo continues to roll this out to the rest of their test fleet in a timely manner.
Waymo doesn’t say it, but I have to believe that, for now, they have test engineers near the driverless vehicles. They might be in trailing vehicles or at some sort of central command point to which the driverless vehicles are geofenced. I wouldn’t want an accident to happen (even an accident that’s not Waymo’s fault) and have civilian passengers be the first ones to talk with police and the press.
As I understand it, these rides are carrying civilian, non-Waymo employees, but they’re also pre-screened for the program. The next step for Waymo will be what Uber has already done in Pittsburgh: open the program up to anybody who downloads the app.
Waymo recently invited a group of journalists, including TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington, on a tour of their Castle testing facility for self-driving cars. (“Castle” was the name of the Air Force base that occupied the site before Waymo took over,)
Etherington wrote three posts based on the visit, all of which are worth reading.
“Structured Testing sounds kind of complicated but it’s actually explained in the name — Waymo sets up (structures) tests using its self-driving vehicles (the latest generation Chrysler Pacifica-based test car in the examples we saw), as well as things they call “fauxes” (pronounced “foxes” by [Stephanie Villegas, Waymo’s Structured Testing Lead]. These are other cars, pedestrians, cyclists and other variables (contractors working for Waymo) who replicate the real world conditions that Waymo is trying to test for. The team runs these tests over and over, “as many times as we can where we’re still seeing improvement” per Villegas — and each time the conditions will vary slightly since it’s real-world testing with actual human beings.”
“Taking a truly driverless ride in Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica” covers Etherington’s first ride in a vehicle that literally had nobody in the driver’s seat. California recently legalized this type of testing on public roads, and although I haven’t see anybody do it on actual public streets yet, I had figured Waymo must have been doing this at Castle. Now we know.
“I’ve done a lot of self-driving vehicle demos, including in Waymo’s own previous-generation Lexus test vehicles, so I wasn’t apprehensive about being ferried around in Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivan to begin with. But the experience still took me by surprise, in terms of just how freeing it was once it became apparent that the car was handling shit all on its own, and would continue to do so safely regardless of what else was going on around it.”
““It’s really key for riders to focus their attention on the critical elements for a given situation,” [Waymo UX leader Ryan Powell] says, explaining why they’ve chosen to exclude some visual elements, and to do things like place flashing highlights on any emergency service vehicles picked up by the Waymo sensor suite.”
“When asked directly for a timeline on a public service launch, Waymo CEO John Krafcik declined to even claim a specific year, but he did say it’s probably going to happen sooner than many would believe.”
The cars are being tested in the Phoenix suburbs, and Waymo published a cute video with one of the families that has been testing the car.
To watch the video, it appears that the vehicle does not have a safety driver, although perhaps the family members are trained to operate self-driving cars in an emergency.
Now that Waymo is bringing the program out of stealth, it’s recruiting more families to try out the service, so if you live in the Phoenix area, you should apply!
This is a particularly interesting announcement, because speculation has been rampant about what Waymo’s next move is with self-driving cars.
Google (Waymo’s parent company) has had self-driving cars spinning around Mountain View for years, with paid test drivers. The caution about putting real passengers in these cars caused a lot of people to question whether Google was going to give up a big lead to more aggressive companies like Tesla and Uber.
It’s good to see Google getting out there and ramping up it’s customer base. Here’s hoping the vehicles come to northern California soon.