This car is all yours, with no one up front," the pop-up notification from the Waymo app reads. "This ride will be different. With no one else in the car, Waymo will do all the driving. Moments later, an empty Chrysler Pacifica minivan appears and navigates its way to my location near a park in Chandler, the Phoenix suburb where Waymo has been testing its autonomous vehicles since 2016. More than a dozen journalists experienced driverless rides in 2017 on a closed course at Waymo's testing facility in Castle; and Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, took a driverless ride in the company's Firefly prototype on Austin's city streets way back in 2015.
I'm in the middle seat of a Chrysler Pacifica minivan, heading north on Dobson Road in Chandler, Arizona, when I notice we may have taken a wrong turn. Under normal circumstances, I would just lean forward and ask the driver for an explanation. There is, after all, no driver to ask. Last October, Alphabet's self-driving subsidiary Waymo emailed its customers in the suburbs of Phoenix to let them know that "completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way." For several years, Waymo has offered its autonomous taxi service to a small group of people, but the rides typically included a safety driver behind the steering wheel.
Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, is about to put more passengers its fully driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The company emailed its customers in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, to let them know that "completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way." It's a sign that Waymo is growing confident enough in its technology to increase the frequency at which it allows passengers to ride in autonomous vehicles without a safety driver behind the wheel. The email, which was published on Reddit and confirmed as authentic by a spokesperson, was sent to members of Waymo's early rider program, a 400-plus cadre of suburban Arizonans who signed nondisclosure agreements with Waymo to test its self-driving cars. Waymo also operates an invite-only commercial ride-hailing service called Waymo One that includes around 1,000 people.
Waymo said Thursday that it is opening its fully driverless ride-hailing service in suburban Phoenix to the public. Alphabet Inc.'s self-driving car unit began ferrying a select group of a few hundred customers, known as "early riders," in vehicles without safety drivers in the summer of 2019. After receiving feedback from those riders, who were bound by non-disclosure agreements not to discuss their experiences publicly, the company is making driverless rides in its Chrysler Pacifica minivans available to all users in the Phoenix area. "It's a really, really big deal, we think, for us, and for the world," said Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. It's been five years since Waymo provided the first-ever passenger trip in a driverless vehicle on a public road.
It seems the novelty of riding in a driverless car wears off quickly, if promotional footage from Google's Waymo is to be believed. Members of the public taking part in its Early Rider program in Arizona were recently invited to take trips in its now fully automated minivans. After their initial excitement wears off, the video clip shows them playing with their phones, taking selfies and even falling asleep. Waymo's first publicly available ride-hailing service is expected to be unveiled in Phoenix later this year, after the state gave the plans the go-ahead. Members of the public taking part in its Early Rider program in Arizona were recently invited to take trips in its now fully automated minivans.