Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, the company created to commercialize Google’s self-driving car research, is starting its first public test of the futuristic technology with a large-scale program in Phoenix, Arizona, that will eventually have hundreds of residents integrating robotic vehicles into their daily routines.
Waymo, formed in December, has run a stealth program for two months in Arizona that let locals try out a small test fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans outfitted with its hardware and software. The Silicon Valley company is now broadly expanding the program across Phoenix to let many more people start using the automated minivans as their primary means of transportation.
“Over the course of this trial, we’ll be accepting hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds and transportation needs who want to ride in and give feedback about Waymo’s self-driving cars,” CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post. “Rather than offering people one or two rides, the goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco.”
Google’s research began more than seven years ago and was the catalyst for the current race among auto and tech firms to master the artificial intelligence, sensors and other hardware needed for driverless cars and trucks. Waymo now faces competition to maintain Google’s early start from dozens of competitors. The expansion of testing to the general public on the scale it’s pursuing underscores how much confidence the company has in the viability of its system.
“This latest phase of Waymo’s testing will provide new transportation options for Arizonans who participate, and help pave the way for the expansion of this technology,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said in a statement.
Uber launched a test program for automated vehicles in Pittsburgh in September 2016, letting users there hail free rides within particular areas of the city. The Waymo program appears to be planning a much larger overall fleet, with a focus on having individuals use it as they would a personal vehicle for all aspects of daily driving. Like Uber’s program, the service will be free for users and, at least initially, a Waymo technician will be in the driver’s seat, ready to take over at all times in the event of tricky road conditions.
Additionally, Waymo is buying 500 more Pacifica Hybrids from FCA’s Chrysler, beyond an initial 100 that are already being deployed. Those additions, along with its existing robotic fleet, will give Waymo nearly 700 vehicles by year-end to expand its real world testing.
“The collaboration between FCA and Waymo has been advantageous for both companies as we continue to work together to fully understand the steps needed to bring self-driving vehicles to market,” Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler’s CEO, said in a statement.
Along with FCA, Waymo is also in talks to supply its self-driving vehicle technology to Honda.
For the Phoenix program Waymo is providing a smartphone app to allow users to access the test fleet, and will have fairly flexible guidelines for users, company spokesman Johnny Luu said, without elaborating.
“Our early riders will play an important role in shaping the way we bring self-driving technology into the world—through personal cars, public transportation, ride-hailing, logistics and more,” Krafcik said. “Self-driving cars have the potential to reshape each and every one of these areas, transforming our lives and our cities by making them safer, more convenient and more accessible.”
Waymo isn’t disclosing the cost of the test program, how many vehicles in total will operate in Phoenix and how much it’s paying for the additional Pacifica minivans.
The announcement comes amid a tense legal fight between Waymo and Uber, resulting from claims that the head of Uber’s self-driving vehicle program stole thousands of pages of trade secrets weeks before he resigned from Google. That case is being heard in federal court in San Francisco.