Last month, Arizona officials OK’d a plan by Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo to operate the first driverless ride-hailing service in the U.S. Now, the company’s showing off what the passenger experience will be like when that service launches later this year. It’s a small, wild glimpse of the future.
On Tuesday, Waymo CEO John Krafcik is delivering a keynote address at SXSW in Austin, where the company is unveiling a short video of what it’s like to ride in one of its driverless Chrysler Pacificas. It’s Waymo’s latest public relations effort amid an onslaught of announcements from the company ahead of the launch for its ride-hailing service—and it’s the clearest illustration of what a future world would be like if driverless cars ruled the road.
Passengers are shown in the back seat yawning, texting, taking selfies—looking bored, really. Which makes sense: When you’re removed from the mental strain having to pay attention to the road, driving should become, well, boring.
But it’s undeniably striking to see a car—with no driver at the wheel—making left-turns and cruising along with ease.
The commercial ride-hailing service would mark the latest development in Waymo’s autonomous car efforts in the Phoenix area, which began in earnest in early 2017, when the company picked members of the public to participate in a pilot program. The so-called “early riders” could hail one of Waymo’s cars using an app, and were then carted around town to run errands or get to work.
By November, the company removed the driver from the equation and deployed a fleet of fully-autonomous, driverless cars on the road. Last month Arizona approved a permit by Waymo to operate the first commercial driverless ride-hailing service.
At first, the plan is to launch the service in Phoenix—bolstered by a deal with Fiat Chrysler to eventually add thousands of autonomous cars to Waymo’s current fleet of 600 vehicles—and, eventually, expand into other cities. To date, Waymo has tested autonomous cars in 25 cities.
Waymo spent most of 2017 duking it out with soon-to-be ride-hailing servicer rival Uber, over allegations that a former Google engineer stole autonomous car secrets and used them to improve Uber’s own autonomous driving efforts. The case was settled during trial, with Uber agreeing to pay a financial settlement worth about $245 million and to never incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into its hardware and software. Now, Uber is reportedly trying to strike a deal with Waymo that would allow its passengers to hail a ride in one of its driverless cars.
But above all, with Waymo nearing the launch of the driverless car service, I’m looking forward to hearing directly from the passengers about how the vehicles perform. It’s going to take decades before autonomous cars expand their reach, but Waymo’s test drives look downright impressive, even if they’re only traveling around a small slice of the world.