Only weeks after obtaining a permit to test autonomous vehicles in California without a safety driver behind the wheel, Google spinoff Waymo is reportedly gearing up to launch a commercial taxi service that’ll go head to head with Lyft, Uber, and other ride-hailing incumbents. According to Bloomberg, it could launch in early December and will operate under a new brand.
It’ll be an understated affair at launch, a source told the publication. Waymo isn’t planning a media event, and only “dozens” or “hundreds” of riders in the Phoenix, Arizona suburbs — likely drawn from the pool of 400 members in Waymo’s existing Early Rider Program — will initially participate. Over time, new customers from the Phoenix area will be phased in as Waymo “adds more vehicles to its fleet to ensure a balance of supply and demand,” Bloomberg reports.
Waymo’s driverless taxis will have additional safety precautions in place to “ease customers into the service.” Some cars will reportedly have backup drivers, although Waymo’s fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans will drive themselves more than 99.9 percent of the time. Interestingly, the kickoff of Waymo’s commercial service won’t mark the end of its Early Rider Program; instead, members will “continue to test new features” and “offer feedback to the company.”
As for the Waymo’s expansion plans, a source tells Bloomberg that the company plans to slowly establish routes in major metropolitan areas across the U.S. It’s just beginning to experiment with pricing models, but it will reportedly offer “straightforward” fares when the service launches that are “competitive” with Uber and Lyft.
Waymo might have competition. Autonomous car startup Drive.ai recently deployed a fleet of self-driving vans in Arlington, Texas, following a pilot in Frisco, Texas in July. Earlier this month, Boston company Optimus Ride announced its intention to launch the first fully driverless commercial taxi service in the U.S. by the end of 2018.
The self-driving vehicle market is expected to be worth as much as $556.67 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research, propelled by verticals such as food delivery and ride-hailing. About $80 billion has been invested in autonomous car research to date.
But challenges lie ahead.
In the U.S., legislation remains stalled, at least at the Congressional level. More than a year ago, the House unanimously passed the Self Drive Act, which would create a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles. It has yet to be taken up by the Senate, which this summer tabled a separate bill, the AV Start Act, that made its way through committee in November 2017.
And public confidence in self-driving technology is low. Three separate studies this summer — by the Brookings Institution, think tank HNTB, and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS) — found that a majority of people aren’t convinced of driverless cars’ safety. More than 60 percent said they were “not inclined” to ride in self-driving cars, and almost 70 percent expressed “concerns” about sharing the road with them.
Partly to blame is the high-profile suspension of Uber’s autonomous Volvo XC90 fleet in March after one of its cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. (Uber recently petitioned Pennsylvania for permission to resume self-driving car testing on public roads.) Separately, Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance system has been blamed for a number of fender benders, including one earlier this year in which a Tesla Model S collided with a parked Culver City fire truck.
Critics argue that the autonomous car industry lacks an empirical, agreed-upon method for testing in-vehicle safety. This fall, the Rand Corporation published an Uber-commissioned report — “Measuring Automated Vehicle Safety: Forging a Framework” — that laid bare the challenges ahead. It suggested that local DMVs play a larger role in formalizing the demonstration process and that companies and governments engage in data-sharing.
Despite the opposition, preliminary research shows that self-driving cars have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year.
About 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error, and in 2016 — a year when motor vehicle deaths claimed 40,000 lives — the top three causes of traffic fatalities were distracted driving, drunk driving, and speeding. Currently, according to the National Safety Council, Americans’ odds of dying in a car crash are one in 114.
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