In a self-driving car first, ride with Waymo and there's no driver
SAN FRANCISCO — Ask people what they think about being chauffeured by a driverless car, and you're likely to get a wake-me-when-it's-here yawn.
Time to wake up.
Waymo, Google's year-old company dedicated to commercializing autonomous vehicles, will soon be offering Phoenix-area residents rides in self-driving Chrysler Pacificas that feature no one in the driver's seat. Just you and your robotic ride.
"What you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology," Waymo CEO John Krafcik told an audience at Web Summit in Lisbon Tuesday, according to a draft of remarks provided to USA TODAY.
"Over time, we’ll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, which is larger than Greater London," Krafcik said, screening a video of Waymo's driverless Pacificas cruising the streets of Phoenix. "Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the U.S. and around the world."
More:Waymo shows off the secret facility where it trains self-driving cars
More:Waymo's self-driving cars ditch the safety driver. Here's what that's like
More:Lyft adds Ford as yet another self-driving car dance partner
Initially, a Waymo staffer will ride with passengers. But once the novelty of a steering wheel that turns by itself wears off, the company plans to remove its representatives.
Earlier this year, Waymo launched a driverless car program in the Arizona city as a way of getting more information about both rider use cases and vehicle performance.
Around 10,000 residents applied for the program, which provides free access to a self-driving Pacifica for daily needs typically handled by a personal car, ranging from meetings to kids' soccer games. Waymo has not said how many people are in the program.
Over the coming months, some of these users will be picked up by a car with an empty driver's seat. Self-driving car companies typically have a safety driver ready to take over in case of an emergency, and safety drivers are mandatory in some states. Arizona has been particularly welcoming to autonomous car companies.
Last week, Waymo hosted around 50 journalists for a first-ever look at the company's private testing facility in central California. Dubbed Castle after a former air base, the large grounds feature buildings and roads that allow Waymo engineers the ability to repeatedly test new software before deploying the tech on public roads.
At the time of the event, the most obvious reason for Waymo to invite outsiders was simply to position the company as being on the cutting edge of an increasingly competitive field that includes longtime automakers such as Ford and Mercedes-Benz and tech-steeped start-ups such as Tesla and Faraday Future.
But given Krafcik's announcement at Web Summit, the timing of the Castle tour indicates that the company was poised to make a public-facing, driverless vehicle announcement and wanted media to have experience riding with a robot at the wheel for themselves.
Overall, the experience was drama-free and easy to get used to, but one has to keep in mind that being driven around by a computer algorithm in the real world could induce some anxiety.
Waymo has tried to design for that fact, including an array of buttons for passengers that include one that will order the car to pull over. The cars also feature screens that show where the vehicle is headed and what its sensors are seeing, from other cars to pedestrians.
Most players in the self-driving game have targeted 2020 for a debut of self-driving ride- sharing fleets. Experts have long assumed that such vehicles would not be owned by individuals, but rather be deployed and maintained by large corporate entities.
Ride-sharing start-ups such as Uber and Lyft have also been making technological headway and forging partnerships in this arena, largely driven by the fact that their business models go from questionable to lucrative if a human driver is no longer part of the equation.
In his speech, Krafcik sketched out a near future where Waymo-powered self-driving vehicles could be deployed for a range of missions, with interiors to match.
"Because you’re accessing vehicles rather than owning, in the future, you could choose from an entire fleet of vehicle options that are tailored to each trip you want to make," he said. "One (vehicle) for napping, a personal dining room, a mobile office, or a vehicle just for when moving into your new place. ... But it all starts with those first fully self-driving rides."
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.