Autonomous driving with no more 'safety drivers'?

Private Life and Mobility

Raven Brookes

Raven Brookes



The latest on autonomous fleet testing by Google's Waymo


It seems to have been a quiet year for the tech companies testing autonomous vehicle fleets, with news of closures of Waymo's self-driving car manufacturing facilities in Texas being more prominent than news of progress. But that doesn't mean progress isn't being made. In fact, as of this month the opposite is true. 


Despite a few setbacks, including the aforementioned closure, Waymo has officially hit the streets of Phoenix, Arizona without safety engineers on board – a huge milestone for the autonomous driving revolution. Here's what's happened in the 11 months since I first reported on Waymo's efforts in producing driverless taxi fleets. 


The story so far 

In December 2018, Google hit the headlines for driverless reasons. The company Waymo, owned and operated by Google's parent company Alphabet, revealed a world first: a fully autonomous commercial ride hailing service, all with retro-fitted Chrysler Pacificas. 


The technology itself had been a decade in development and, finally, hundreds of vetted volunteers were about to start using the service for their day-to-day journeys. In October 2018, testing achieved 10 million miles on public roads in small areas in Arizona, California and Washington. By December, commercial testing with a ride-hailing app akin to Uber had officially begun. 


But there was a catch. The rides weren't fully driverless, even if the vehicles were. Each of the 400 'Early Riders' would be accompanied by a trained safety driver, sitting at the wheel ready to take over in the event that the system failed. Non-safety rider tests were taking place off public roads, but on them the presence of a safety driver was essential. 


But things have changed.  


The next phase begins  

Eleven months after the commercial service was launched, TechCrunch journalist Ed Niedermeyer ordered a Waymo One using his app, and a completely empty vehicle arrived. Up until then, every public autonomous ride had been 'manned' by a driver at the wheel. This time, for the first time, the only person in the car was the passenger. 


What followed was an uneventful yet entirely successful journey around Phoenix's 'geo-fenced' areas, with Ed noting that the journey was "surreal", especially when it reached 45mph without a human sitting behind the steering wheel. 


What's next?

This journey, which took place on 1 November 2019, was the first public and completely driverless ride. It certainly won't be the last. With 600 Waymo vehicles on the roads, mostly made up of Chrysler Pacificas, more entirely driverless tests will be taking place. And, this time, the public will have full access to the full commercial service: Waymo One. 


It's still early days and there are still heavy restrictions on where these rides will take place. As it stands, they will all be in specific 'geo-fenced' areas – roughly 100 square miles in total. But, as Waymo's horizons expand, so will their territories and fleet size. 


In May 2018, Waymo revealed to the New York Times that 62,000 more Chrysler Pacificas had been purchased, ready to be retro-fitted with autonomous equipment and systems, alongside a further 20,000 electric Jaguar SUVs. This is far, far more than 100 square miles can contain. 


It's still relatively early days, but it's a significant step forward in the testing process. It's also a proof that, despite the setbacks experienced by Waymo and companies like them, fleets of robo-taxis on a global-scale could be imminent. 


When that day comes, the benefits to our day-today lives could be huge. But in the meantime, keep a close eye on Arizona. 


Join the debate! How long will it be until Waymo One replaces human-driven taxis – and will it be a good thing if they do? 


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