For a month now, Waymo has been offering rides in its robocars to select customers in Phoenix, Ariz. To help expand the ridership, the company is adding 500 vehicles to its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, a sixfold increase.
A customer hails a ride through a phone app; when it arrives, there will be a professional driver behind the wheel who can take over should the software get flummoxed. Waymo’s record for such human interventions is far and away the best in the business, at a mere 1 instance for every 800 kilometers traveled.
You can apply for the free service if you live in certain parts of the Phoenix area and are at least 18 years old. The robotaxi will take you only on trips within the environs, which Waymo says covers twice the area of San Francisco.
Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said in a blog post that the ride-hailing experiment represents a shift in emphasis away from the purely technical side of the robocar problem. “Now, with this program, we’re turning our attention to the people who will benefit from this technology,” said Krafcik in a blog post.
The move follows similar, but smaller, pilot programs begun by Uber, in Pittsburgh, and NuTonomy, in Singapore. Both of those companies plan to expand their services to other areas.
Offering the service for free certainly must improve customer satisfaction, as is evident in the smiles on the faces of the family depicted in Waymo’s video. It serves to remind us that all these pilot programs are meant not only to provide feedback but also to promote the companies’ brands. Take a look:
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.