Feb 28, 2020 - Economy

Waymo's driverless milestone marks the start of AV race

Images of interior and exterior of driverless Waymo van.

Photos: Joann Muller/Axios

A ride in Waymo's driverless minivan is awe-inspiring, but also a reminder of how industry hype has skewed our expectations for self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Waymo is the first company to deploy automated vehicles on public roads without anyone behind the wheel, but all that means is they've crossed the starting line in the self-driving race.

  • Like every other AV developer, Waymo still has to win the public's trust, and make a business of it, neither of which will be easy.

What's happening: Waymo is plotting two commercial offerings: Waymo One, its fledgling automated ride-hailing service currently confined to the Phoenix suburbs, and a soon-to-be-named automated trucking business.

  • It's also offering to let other ride-hailing or delivery companies hire the automated "Waymo driver" for their own businesses. Some Waymo-driven vehicles are available on the Lyft network in Phoenix, for example.
  • A recent deal to use Waymo vans to shuttle packages from UPS stores to a distribution center suggests a broader partnership with the giant logistics company.
  • Longer term, Waymo is considering a year-long subscription program for individuals, whose personal car would come with a built-in Waymo chauffeur, says CEO John Krafcik. After trade-in, Waymo would use those same vehicles in its ride-hailing or delivery services.
  • "Just like everyone else, they're trying to figure out the business model," says Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Navigant Research.

What to watch: In an interview with Axios, Krafcik acknowledged automated trucking looks like a bigger opportunity at the moment.

  • "But in 10 years, the movement of people with automated ride hailing will be substantially larger."

My ride began in front of the Element Hotel in Chandler, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb where Waymo does most of its AV testing.

  • "This ride will be different. With no one else in the car, Waymo will do all the driving. Enjoy the ride!" the Waymo app advised me.
  • About 3 minutes later, a white Chrysler Pacifica minivan outfitted with Waymo hardware and software arrived.
  • But instead of meeting me in the driveway in front of the lobby as I expected, it stopped about 30 feet away in the parking lot. (Waymo tells me I could have dropped a pin to make the pickup spot more precise.)
  • I climbed in the back seat, shut the door and pushed the big green "Start Ride" button on the screen in front of me.

My thought bubble: The 12-minute ride to a nearby shopping center was uneventful, as one would hope. Even at 45 mph, I felt confident, safe — even awed — during the ride.

But I was also struck by the limitations of the experience: this was a fairly simple route in an area the car knew well, traffic was light and weather conditions were ideal. (The threat of flash flooding earlier in the week suspended driverless operations for several days.)

  • Not everyone can summon a free driverless Waymo — their range is limited to about half of Waymo's standard 100-square-mile operating domain outside Phoenix.
  • And only about 400 hand-chosen "early riders" who agree to sign non-disclosure agreements can request a driverless ride.
  • Around 1,100 paying Waymo One customers always get a safety driver — for now.
  • Deploying large-scale robotaxi services in every city will take time.

The bottom line: I've ridden in autonomous vehicles many times, but always with a safety driver. My first truly driverless ride, while thrilling, convinced me it will be years before autonomous mobility is widely available.

See how my ride went on Instagram.

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