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One small step for Waymo; one giant leap for driverless mobility

It just got real! Waymo’s early riders in Phoenix will soon be paying for the privilege! (Photo: Waymo)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Waymo’s world first, some raunchy research and a boost for Germany’s (artificial) intelligence: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

Dare I say it: we might be about to dip our toes in the driverless age - officially. Waymo is set to launch the first commercial driverless car service in the world – and it’ll be this side of Christmas. But as we’ve come to expect from Waymo, there hasn’t exactly been fireworks surrounding the announcement.

Speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s Live Tech conference in Laguna Beach, California on Tuesday, Waymo CEO John Krafcik mentioned how the firm wanted to expand the existing Early Rider program in Phoenix “step by step, little by little.” This followed whispers from a few weeks ago that it had already “moved into very early days of commercialization”. But it wasn’t until “a person familiar with the plans” spilled the beans to Bloomberg that we learned exactly what this means. Apparently, the commercial service will launch under a new brand name in December and will operate a fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans (with backup drivers in some) which will compete directly with Uber and Lyft.

Now I’m not one to over-hype, but this is significant. Rightly, Waymo downplays it. One can speculate as to why: to manage consumer and media expectations? To not over-promise? To be on the record should something go wrong? It talks in terms of steps along a journey. And yes, this may be a small incremental step in its cautious roll-out and far from a stand-alone profitable business, but all of a sudden it makes driverless mobility all the more real. It’s no longer a question of “when will driverless ride hailing arrive?” and more a question of “when will it reach me?”

The answer – according to Krafcik – is decades. The man treads so carefully that he covered all of this talk of expansion with a heavy blanket of realism – even verging on driverless doubt as to whether the vehicles will ever be able to deal with all weather conditions. Thankfully, not quite as much doubt as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who last week told CNBC that he doesn’t believe in driverless cars at all.

Well I do. And no matter how many decades it might take to expand to a large scale or how many barriers still need cleared, we might just have christened Phoenix as the birthplace of driverless mobility.

Doing the driverless deed

When their day comes, fully autonomous (Level 5) vehicles are bound to have a huge impact on many facets of our life; not least, working culture, which we recently explored in detail. But a research paper published in the Annals of Tourism Research journal in January was only recently unearthed by Fast Company – and it talks about something our cultural conservatism hasn’t allowed many to explore yet: “the night-time visitor economy” as the paper puts it. To you and me – the sex trade.

Could red light districts like Amsterdam’s be on the move? Literally… (Photo: Pexels)

The authors – Scott Cohen from the University of Surrey and Debbie Hopkins from the University of Oxford – predict that “…’hotels-by-the-hour’ will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. “It’s not impossible or that far-fetched to imagine the red-light district on the move,” says Cohen, which he believes will have implications on urban tourism.

Granted, it’s only one finding in a wider look at how autonomous vehicles may impact cities in terms of tourism, but it’s an interesting one. Is it too far-fetched to think that automakers will consider this use case in their designs (sex sells after all)? Perhaps, but this study certainly shows that when you think about it, it’s difficult to imagine any industry escaping the impact of autonomous driving.

Germany’s AI boost is small change in China

Machine learning, deep-learning, neural networks – however you refer to it, artificial intelligence (AI) lies at the heart (or should I say brain) of automated driving. Succeed in this field and you’re a winner, so competition is already high amongst the big tech companies. But there’s also an inter-country battle for expertise going on – and Germany may be getting a boost.

Will a cash injection make Germany Europe’s AI nerve center? (Photo: Fotolia / adimas)

According to a draft paper seen by Reuters last week, the German government has set aside 3 billion euros (3.4 billion USD) to spend before 2025 “for research and development of artificial intelligence” with the view to closing the gap between it and America and Asia.

A welcomed boost if you’re fighting for the European corner but it’s hard not to think how it pales in comparison to China’s ambition to foster a 1 trillion USD AI industry by 2030. It’s a huge gap to close. The city of Tianjin alone plans a 5 billion USD investment in the tech. But still, every little helps I suppose.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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