Waymo One, first com­mer­cial rob­o­taxi, is up and run­ning

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - MARKETS - By Russ Mitchell Los An­ge­les Times

Ro­bot cars are now of­fi­cially a real busi­ness.

Waymo this week launched a com­mer­cial ro­bot ride-hail­ing ser­vice in Ari­zona called Waymo One.

Like Uber or Lyft, cus­tomers will sum­mon a ride with a smart­phone app. But in this case, the car will be driv­ing it­self.

“This is a game changer. It’s his­tor­i­cal in na­ture,” said Grayson Brulte, who heads driver­less car con­sult­ing firm Brulte & Co.

Only “a few hun­dred cus­tomers” will have ac­cess to the app and par­tic­i­pate in the early stages, ac­cord­ing to Waymo, which is an arm of Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc. Although the cars will drive them­selves, a Waymo engi­neer will sit be­hind the wheel in case any­thing goes wrong. Waymo did not say when the cars will start ar­riv­ing with­out a hu­man min­der or when the pro­gram will be ex­panded.

Waymo’s cars, Chrysler Paci­fica mini­vans bristling with au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, are avail­able in sev­eral eastern and south­east­ern Phoenix suburbs, in­clud­ing Chan­dler, Tempe, Mesa and Gil­bert. The fares are sim­i­lar to those charged by Uber and Lyft.

Waymo has fer­ried Phoenix-area pas­sen­gers in ro­bot cars since April 2017 in what the com­pany calls its Early Rider pro­gram. Un­like Early Rider, which will con­tinue, Waymo One cus­tomers won’t be re­quired to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments and won’t be ex­pected to con­tin­u­ally pro­vide feed­back about their ex­pe­ri­ence.

Waymo One rep­re­sents the be­gin­nings of a busi­ness that could be worth a lot of money. How much, no one yet knows: Wall Street es­ti­mates of Waymo’s mar­ket value, should it be spun off, range from $50 bil­lion to $175 bil­lion.

Waymo be­gan driver­less-car devel­op­ment in 2009. Although dozens of com­pa­nies, from small start-ups to ma­jor mo­tor ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, are de­vel­op­ing driver­less sys­tems, Waymo is con­sid­ered the emerg­ing in­dus­try’s leader — in large part be­cause of Google’s ex­per­tise in map­ping and ma­chine learn­ing com­bined with the rich am­ple in­vest­ment dol­lars churned out by Google’s search ad­ver­tis­ing money ma­chine.

There ap­pears to be far more de­mand for the ser­vice than Waymo is able or will­ing to pro­vide at present. The Early Rider pro­gram at­tracted 20,000 ap­pli­cants, the com­pany said, but only about 400 were cho­sen.

A big rea­son for the slo-mo na­ture of com­mer­cial roll­out, ac­cord­ing to Waymo, is safety.

The emerg­ing driver­less car in­dus­try suf­fered a blow in March when an Uber ro­bot car hit and killed a pedes­trian in Ari­zona. The ex­per­i­men­tal ve­hi­cle, with an ap­par­ently inat­ten­tive Uber em­ployee be­hind the wheel, plowed into a woman walk­ing a bi­cy­cle across a high­way at night. Although the pedes­trian wasn’t in a cross­walk, nei­ther the hu­man driver nor the driver­less sys­tem ap­plied the brakes un­til af­ter the woman was hit.

Deaths in­volv­ing Tesla’s Au­topi­lot sys­tem have also drawn head­lines, although Au­topi­lot is not in­tended to be used as an au­ton­o­mous sys­tem.

Prac­ti­cally ev­ery com­pany de­vel­op­ing driver­less cars uses a com­bi­na­tion of radar, op­ti­cal, ul­tra­sound and li­dar sen­sors — ex­cept Tesla, which has said ex­pen­sive li­dar, which uses laser light to de­tect ob­jects, will not be nec­es­sary for the driver­less cars it plans to de­ploy.

Even if ro­bot cars prove safer than hu­man driv­ers, one of the in­tended aims, bad pub­lic­ity from freak ac­ci­dents or man­u­fac­turer mis­steps could slow the tech­nol­ogy’s ac­cep­tance by the gen­eral pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The Phoenix area was cho­sen de­lib­er­ately for its friend­li­ness to driver­less cars — and not just be­cause of the sup­port of Ari­zona’s gover­nor and lo­cal of­fi­cials. (Reg­u­la­tions on driver­less cars are less strin­gent in Ari­zona than in Cal­i­for­nia.)

The flat, snow-free desert ter­rain, the well-kept and well-marked roads, the scarcity of trees to block street signs, and sun­blasted side­walks on which few pedes­tri­ans tread all lend them­selves to early ro­bot car de­ploy­ment.

MICHAEL LARIS/WASH­ING­TON POST

Driver­less Waymo cabs are fer­ry­ing pas­sen­gers around Phoenix suburbs, in a first for a U.S. com­mer­cial com­pany.

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