Chandler, Tempe, Ahwatukee, and Mesa—Phoenix suburbs with near-perfect grids dotted with homes and big-box stores, the occasional golf course, and the state’s largest university—are now the proving grounds for a major development in autonomous transportation.
Self-driving vehicle company Waymo, a Google spinoff owned by parent company Alphabet, is embarking on new territory: shuttling a group of early riders in self-driving vehicles without a human test driver behind the wheel. Waymo CEO John Krafick released a video (see below) and talked about the move during a session Tuesday at the South By Southwest conference in Austin.
It’s a watershed moment for a company that has been working toward this goal for nearly a decade. Waymo began testing its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Chandler in 2016. Last April, the company launched an early rider program that let real people in the Phoenix area use an app to hail one. But these rides always had a human behind the wheel, just in case.
Waymo took the program to the next level in November and removed employees (and passengers) from its test fleet, sending dozens of empty self-driving minivans onto the streets of greater Phoenix. Now, early riders have the ability to hail one and hop in. And before long, perhaps, so will the rest of us.
For now, the driverless early rider program is small. But there’s evidence it will grow considerably.
In January, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said it will supply Waymo with “thousands” of modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans as the startup prepares to launch a self-driving taxi service.
FCA will begin delivering the vehicles equipped with Waymo’s suite of self-driving hardware and software in late 2018. Waymo will use these new self-driving minivans to expand testing in multiple cities. Waymo didn’t say at the time what “thousands” means or list what cities it would bring its self-driving minivans to. Waymo has tested its technology in 25 cities across the U.S. The company started testing the self-driving minivans in Atlanta earlier this month. Waymo is also testing on public roads in Austin, Texas, Kirkland, Wash., and Mountain View, Calif.