GOOGLE’S ROBOTIC SPINOFF LAUNCHES RIDE-HAIL­ING SER­VICE

Apple Magazine - - Summary -

Google’s self-driv­ing car spinoff is fi­nally ready to try to profit from its nearly decade-old tech­nol­ogy.

Waymo is in­tro­duc­ing a small-scale ride-hail­ing ser­vice in the Phoenix area that will in­clude a hu­man be­hind the wheel in case the robotic ve­hi­cles mal­func­tion.

The ser­vice de­but­ing Wed­nes­day marks a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone for Waymo, a com­pany that be­gan as a se­cre­tive project within Google in 2009. Since then, its cars have robot­i­cally logged more 10 mil­lion miles on pub­lic roads in 25 cities in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, Wash­ing­ton, Michi­gan and Ge­or­gia while get­ting into only a few ac­ci­dents — mostly fender ben­ders.

The com­pany is ini­tially op­er­at­ing the new ser­vice cau­tiously, un­der­scor­ing the chal­lenges still fac­ing its au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles as they nav­i­gate around ve­hi­cles with hu­man driv­ers that don’t al­ways fol­low the same rules as ro­bots.

The ser­vice, dubbed Waymo One, at first will only be avail­able to a cou­ple hun­dred riders, all of whom had al­ready been par­tic­i­pat­ing in a free pi­lot pro­gram that be­gan in April 2017. It will be con­fined to a roughly 100-square-mile area in and around Phoenix, in­clud­ing the neigh­bor­ing cities of Chan­dler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gil­bert.

Although Waymo has been driv­ing pas­sen­gers without any hu­mans be­hind the wheel in its free pi­lot pro­gram, it de­cided to be less dar­ing with the new com­mer­cial ser­vice.

“Self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy is new to many, so we’re pro­ceed­ing care­fully with the com­fort and con­ve­nience of our riders in mind,”Waymo CEO John Kraf­cik wrote in Wed­nes­day blog post herald­ing the ar­rival of the new ser­vice.

The ride-hail­ing ser­vice is launch­ing in the same area where a car us­ing robotic tech­nol­ogy from ride-hail­ing ser­vice Uber hit and killed a pedes­trian cross­ing a dark­ened street in Tempe, Ari­zona seven months ago. That fa­tal col­li­sion at­tracted world­wide at­ten­tion that cast a pall over the en­tire self­driv­ing car in­dus­try as more peo­ple be­gan to pub­licly ques­tion the safety of the ve­hi­cles.

“I sus­pect the Uber fa­tal­ity has caused Waymo to slow down its pace a bit” and use hu­man safety driv­ers in its ride-hail­ing ser­vice,” said Nav­i­gant Re­search an­a­lyst Sam Abuel­samid. “If peo­ple keep dy­ing, there will be a big­ger back­lash against these ve­hi­cles.”

The Uber robotic car had a hu­man safety driver be­hind the wheel, but that wasn’t enough to pre­vent its lethal ac­ci­dent in March.

Waymo’s self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles are still sus­cep­ti­ble to glitches, as an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing a mid-Oc­to­ber ride in an au­ton­o­mous mini­van along­side Kraf­cik near com­pany’s Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, head­quar­ters.

The mini­van per­formed smoothly, even stop­ping for a jay­walker, be­fore abruptly pulling to the right side of the road. Ahead was a left-turn­ing FedEx de­liv­ery truck. In a dig­i­tal mes­sage to the two hu­man backup driv­ers, the van said it “de­tected an is­sue” and it would con­nect to a rider sup­port agent. Rider sup­port didn’t re­spond, so they switched to man­ual mode and re­turned to Waymo head­quar­ters.

At that time, Kraf­cik con­ceded to the AP that Waymo’s self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles were still en­coun­ter­ing oc­ca­sional prob­lems ne­go­ti­at­ing left-hand turns at com­pli­cated in­ter­sec­tions.

“I think the things that hu­mans have chal­lenges with, we’re chal­lenged with as well,” Kraf­cik said. “So some­times un­pro­tected lefts are su­per chal­leng­ing for a hu­man, some­times they’re su­per chal­leng­ing for us.”

Waymo even­tu­ally plans to open its new ride­hail­ing app to all com­ers in the Phoenix area, although it won’t say when. It also wants to ex­pand its ser­vice to other cities, but isn’t say­ing where. When that hap­pens, it could pose a threat to Uber and the se­cond most pop­u­lar U.S. ride-hail­ing ser­vice, Lyft, es­pe­cially since it should be able charge lower prices without the need to share rev­enue with a hu­man driver in con­trol at all times.

Gen­eral Mo­tors also is gear­ing up to be­gin of­fer­ing a ride-hail­ing ser­vice through its Cruise sub­sidiary un­der the man­age­ment of a new CEO, Dan Am­mann, who has been the De­troit au­tomaker’s No. 2 ex­ec­u­tive. Cruise plans to start its ride-hail­ing ser­vice at some point next year in at least one U.S. city. An­other self-driv­ing car com­pany, Drive.ai, has been giv­ing short­dis­tance rides to all com­ers within Frisco, Texas and Ar­ling­ton, Texas since the sum­mer.

Im­age: Mark Lenni­han

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