Waymo launches self-driving service (sort of)

Waymo One's launch is undeniable progress for a driverless future. It also shows there's still a long way to go.
10 December 2018

Waymo Chrysler Pacfica Hybrid minivans. (Source: REUTERS/Caitlin O’Hara)

Self-driving car service Waymo One was launched last week in Phoenix, Arizona— its test ground since early 2017— where it now serves a small community of users via its “Early Rider Program”.

The timeline for delivering a fully-driverless experience, however, remains unspecified.

Its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will initially be offered in cities near Phoenix, which include Tempe, Mesa, and Chandler. The launch announcement follows the company celebrating 10 million self-driven miles on public roads, having started as a Google self-driving car project back in 2009.

In a Medium blog post, Waymo CEO, John Krafcik, said that the company “has been focused on building the world’s most experienced driver” since launch. Krafcik said Waymo’s first users— who will be offered first access to its Early Rider Program— have used vehicles to “commute to work and school, accompany a vision-impaired aunt shopping, get to book club each week, connect to buses, and try new restaurants on date night.”

The Early Rider Program will let this select group test early features, and while the first wave of rides will be supervised by Waymo-trained drivers, fully driverless rides will be offered to some customers. However, when this capability will be rolled out at large remains a mystery; Krafcik conceded that a fully driverless experience will come “gradually”, but didn’t specify any kind of tangible timeframe.

“We’re never done learning, and our early rider program will continue as a way for a select group to give us ongoing insights,” said Krafcik. “They’ll help test early features before those new capabilities graduate to Waymo One.”

With 73 vehicles registered in the state, the cars will only run autonomously in special ‘geo-fenced’ areas where Waymo has mapped streets, traffic signals, driveways and other aspects deemed necessary for navigational purposes.

Some commentators have voiced concerns regarding the Waymo vans and their driving style. In some cases, the vans reportedly have trouble making lane changes, with some not moving over in time or being overly ‘cautious’ while trying to merge into flowing traffic conditions.

Waymo’s Head of Product, Dan Chu, acknowledged issues with the service, stating that the company is committed to fine-tuning certain navigational characteristics.

For Krafcik, meanwhile, much of this relies on developing a “certain social posture” into the Waymo One fleet’s driving style.

“We as humans often encounter this at four-way stops, where you move your car forward just a little bit so the folks around you understand it is your intention to go next. Our cars can do this,” Krafcik said, adding that different markets will require different driving styles.

“We have a special Danny DeVito programming algorithm for New York,” he joked.