Waymo Shifts to Robot-Only Chauffeurs and will offer commercial service in 2018

Waymo has begun testing autonomous vehicles on public roads without human safety drivers at the wheel, and early next year will make its robotic chauffeurs available to Phoenix-area commuters.

Waymo technicians are already hailing its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in and around Phoenix via a mobile app and leaving it to the artificial intelligence operating the vehicles to figure out how to get to requested destinations. Within a few months, Waymo vans loaded with laser LiDAR, radar, cameras, computers, AI and no human safety drivers will pick up Arizonans registered in its “Early Riders” program.

Waymo is likely to start offering a paid ride service sometime in 2018.

In April it expanded a vehicle supply deal with Fiat Chrysler to a total of 600 minivans for its fleet, when it also announced the Phoenix test program for passengers who signed up to be Early Riders. It’s also been in talks for a potential partnership with Honda.

In May it announced plans for an autonomous vehicle pilot program with ride-hailing service Lyft, and in June inked a service deal with rental car giant Avis to help maintain its Phoenix area test fleet. That month Waymo also disclosed that it’s testing self-driving technology on large commercial trucks.

Waymo minivans operate at SAE Level 4 autonomous capability which means they can drive without a human at the wheel in most circumstances. They are trying to reachLevel 5 capability, in which vehicles can drive anywhere a human can under all conditions.

Waymo has a 43 page report on the improved safety of self driving cars.

14 thoughts on “Waymo Shifts to Robot-Only Chauffeurs and will offer commercial service in 2018”

  1. I’ll be impressed when they get to Level 5. Note, Level 5 means they can do anything a human driver can do such as drive over a steep mountain pass with hairpin curves in a heavy rain storm at night.

    • There are conditions where not even you should be driving.

      I think they will acknowledge this and declare zones (which can be dynamic, according to factors like weather and hour) where the cars simply will refuse to go in automatic driving mode, leaving all responsibility to the human driver.

      • I’m just describing a road and conditions that I and many other humans were successfully driving on. Of course, the Level 5 car can’t be expected to drive in impossible conditions that people can’t drive in but those challenging conditions where people actually do drive, the Level 5 car must be able to drive or it’s not Level 5 by definition. Though one interesting feature might be to warn the occupant when the conditions are marginal and let the occupant decide.

    • AI can benefit from collective memory/learning – ie. they all upload their GPS-correlated data to a hub, where it all gets tabulated and compared. Then the next time an AI encounters that steep mountain pass with hairpin curves, it will benefit from knowing how previous trip-takers dealt with the situation.
      Human beings don’t have a comparably efficient collective memory/learning – we have word of mouth, we commit our knowledge to various media (books, TV, blogs, etc) which are consumed by others, etc. But AI’s can be updating themselves with relevant information all the time. The more they know, the less we’ll bother to know, until one day they’re smarter than us, and don’t need us anymore.

      • So, would the first self driving car on that road drive off a cliff? It’s a silly question but it brings up that Level 5 cars need to be able to operate by first principles alone. I’d like to see a car that could even operate without GPS if need be.

  2. While no doubt car ownership can be reduced, I’m among those eager to own my own 4 wheeled robotic butler.

    Because if transport can be transformed, the experience of ownership would be transformed too, creating whole new use cases.

    Owning a car is much more than just accessing a vehicle taking you from point to point destinations. It’s an experience and an extension of your home.

    Having the car doing tasks and errands on its own for you and your family would radically alter what we expect from cars and our perception of autonomous machines.

    Compared to this, computers are furniture. Cars are active agents with definite mass and impact over the real world.

    Things like delivering and picking up people on its own through the day; carrying packages or picking purchases on your behalf would give most people access to an experience only available with a chauffeur.

    One that doesn’t need to be paid beyond the cost of the car and data access, or that doesn’t get tired or bored or angry with the conditions of the road and the city.

    • That pick up and drop off bit requires a lot of cooperation from one or more people at the other end…

      • Yes, and a lot of businesses will grow around this requirement.

        Being able to trust your providers to deliver the purchases in form and order has a lot of value, even today.

    • All the use cases you listed can be done just as well by a hired SDC.
      Having said that, I can think of a few potential advantages of owning your own:

      1. Assured access in high-demand situations (rush hour, new years eve etc).
      2. Not having to deal with the dirt and possible germs of others.
      3. As a status symbol.

      However, if those perks are 10x the cost, I think most people can find better use of their money.
      Maybe an intermediate situation can be possible, where you own and use the SDC personally, but also let it earn money, but only with five-star rated customers.

      Either way, I’m interested in what kind of prices Waymo will be offering when they go live.

      • That “high demand time” thing is where I gave up.

        We are all told

        ” you don’t need to have anything more than urban transport (maybe even a bicycle). Those few times per year when you need to transport anything large or outside of the local town you can just rent. It’s much cheaper.”

        Well, I tried that. And yes, it is cheaper… providing you never want to have that rental at a holiday period, or a busy long weekend. You know, those times you’ll want to transport things and/or go out of town. Then you find that the rental price is 3 times the normal rate, and over christmas the minimum rental time is a whole week because the rental place will be shut, and ….

        Nah, it was cheaper to buy my own light truck and use it as my normal urban vehicle.

    • They are still cheating a bit on their Level 5 because they have a ride along driver to identify situations beyond the cars capabilities. The car itself needs to be able to determine this.

        • It’s probably more of a technicality than anything but it still needs to be addressed. You don’t want to be taking a snooze and have the car miss the fact that a sinkhole opened up in the road ahead. 😉

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