Waymo's Pacifica Minivan from the rear.
Image: YouTube/Waymo.

On Tuesday, Waymo announced the rollout of an early rider program in Phoenix, Arizona. The initiative will allow hundreds of residents in the area to sign up for free rides on the company’s self-driving vehicles for some time after launch.

Alphabet’s driverless technology division is taking registrations directly via its mobile app, and the overall experience will serve to collect real-life data on how people adapt to these new means of transportation.

Waymo, which will also expand its fleet six-fold by adding 500 more Chrysler minivans, is still involved in a legal feud with Uber. The growing startup claims the ride-hailing giant stole and used LIDAR technology developed by Google engineers for its self-driving cars.

Waymo’s autonomous taxis will be free at the beginning 

CEO John Krafcik published a post on Medium announcing the early rider program, which he said would focus on learning how people use self-driving technology instead of just launching a service to match the competition.

“WE’LL LEARN THINGS LIKE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO GO IN A SELF-DRIVING CAR, HOW THEY COMMUNICATE WITH OTHER VEHICLES, AND WHAT INFORMATION AND CONTROLS THEY WANT TO SEE INSIDE,” he wrote.

Waymo’s plan consists of offering people free rides on its semi-autonomous cars to go anywhere they want at any time in the southeastern Phoenix area. Residents who live in zones like Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe will be eligible for the program.

The vehicles sent to pick up people on demand will still come with a human test driver to ensure passenger safety and monitor the experience. The idea is that, eventually, no human element is required.

Uber might soon face a new competitor

Waymo also announced the expansion of its self-driving fleet with the addition of 500 new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. That will take the number of company vehicles above the 600 unit mark, the biggest fleet of its kind so far.

By doing so, Alphabet’s subdivision expects not only to meet the demand for its upcoming trial period but also lay the foundations for a stable service platform soon.

Uber currently dominates the ride-hailing landscape with both traditional and driverless offerings, although the latter are only available in a few cities of the U.S. The company’s semi-autonomous Volvo fleet is just under 50 SUVs in total.

Arizona will reportedly be one of the main battlegrounds in which self-driving companies might face off soon, given its welcoming conditions and open regulations for the new technology.

Lyft recently agreed on a partnership with GM that threatens to mass-produce thousands of Bolt models equipped with semi-autonomous functions. The deployment of these new cars may come as soon as next year.

Source: Waymo

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