Self-driving cars are ever inching closer to feasibility, as the Alphabet-owned company Waymo announced the official rollout of its self-driving taxi service today. The launch of Waymo One in Arizona, although only initially available to research testers from Waymo’s research program, is a milestone that critics thought Waymo wouldn’t be able to reach before the end of 2018.
This year was a pretty dour period for real-world autonomous vehicle (AV) testing. Uber drew ire and shut down its self-driving car operations in Arizona after a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street. Federal regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shut down a self-driving school bus program in Florida. And in Chandler, Arizona, just outside of Waymo’s AV testing ground, residents complained that the self-driving cars would regularly stop without warning at a T-shaped intersection and require that the human safety drivers take control.
Waymo is starting small with a pool of invite-only riders, but the launch today fulfills a pledge the company had made to get its fleet of AVs on the road before the end of the year. Customers can hail an autonomous vehicle in the Metro Phoenix area through the Waymo ridesharing app in the cities of Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa. Each car will be decked out with touchscreens, where passengers can connect with a Waymo rider support agent to have questions about their trip answered.
In-car chaperones will be present during the first phase of Waymo One’s rollout, but moving forward, the company wants to graduate to fully-driverless rides. The early rider program will continue, and test riders will have early access to features that Waymo wants to include in their taxi service. The company is hoping to use the feedback from its Phoenix-area riders to eventually expand the program to other cities and the general public.