After researching autonomous cars for almost 10 years, Google is beginning to test the technology with consumers. Phoenix residents can now sign up to use the online giant’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in a car-ride service. In fact, Google has been quietly testing the service with a small handful of people in Phoenix for two months.
Google’s self-driving group, called Waymo, is adding 500 Pacificas to its fleet. Until now, Waymo was testing the Chryslers, plus a handful of Lexus SUVs, strictly with its employees and contractors on board. Waymo CEO John Krafcik says it’s time to start gathering data on exactly how people experience and use self-driving vehicles, adding he hopes consumers “use this for all their transportation needs.”
Waymo is letting hundreds of Phoenix residents apply for the service as part of an early rider program. Initial users will be able to book for free Waymo’s Pacificas via an app and can sign up for a ride any day at any time. Waymo is taking applications now. It hasn’t said when the service begins.
Krafcik says the scheme will generate income eventually, and Waymo wants its early riders to have diverse backgrounds and transportation needs. Waymo’s staff has developed new displays and controls to make people comfortable being inside self-driving cars — the Phoenix passengers are the first to see it all in action.
Google has been researching autonomous cars since 2009, and automakers are rushing to catch up, pumping billions into technology and engineering talent. Other companies have jumped in as well, some founded by former Waymo engineers, Bloomberg reports.
Uber, in particular, has emerged as a bitter rival. Last year, Uber’s autonomous vehicles began picking up paying customers in Pittsburgh, and the company has since added Tempe. Waymo is suing Uber over the technology, last week claiming the ride-hailing company copied its design plans for a laser sensor. Waymo says its business model will be broader than Uber’s — Krafcik says self-driving technology makes sense for both ride-sharing and personal-car ownership.
Waymo is testing in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona. In total, Google has racked up nearly 3 million test miles on public roads, refining software and making sure the system can handle potentially dangerous situations.
Phoenix passengers will initially be ferried by a Waymo contractor or employee — though Krafcik said the goal is to remove the employee eventually.