SAN FRANCISCO – Alphabet Inc’s Waymo self-driving unit is launching a ride-hailing service for the general public with no human driver behind the steering wheel and has been testing such fully self-driving cars on public roads in Arizona, Chief Executive John Krafcik said on Tuesday.
The announcement by Krafcik at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon is a major advance in the roll-out of fully autonomous vehicles. While self-driving car companies test their vehicles in public, they routinely have a human in the driver’s seat ready to take over if the technology fails.
Large tech companies, established automakers and well-funded startups are all vying for what they expect to be a new era for vehicles and a lucrative opportunity.
Waymo said that members of the public will begin riding in its fleet of Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans outfitted with Waymo technology — and without human drivers — in the next few months.
At first, the passengers will be accompanied in the back seat by a Waymo employee, but eventually the passengers will travel alone in the robotic car. The service will start free, but Waymo expects at some point to start charging for rides.
First to use the service will be those who are already part of the company’s public trial already underway in Phoenix.
The state of Arizona has no restrictions on self-driving cars.
“Because we see so much potential in shared mobility, the first way people will get to experience Waymo’s fully self-driving technology will be as a driverless service,” Krafcik said in prepared remarks.
With over eight years of testing under its belt, Waymo is a pioneer of self-driving technology and has tested its system in six states, the latest being Michigan.
General Motors Co – which acquired autonomous driving start-up Cruise Automation for a reported $1 billion last year – has signaled its intent to test a robotaxi service in the near future.
In January, Krafcik unveiled a suite of self-driving hardware developed in-house by Waymo, including an enhanced vision system, improved radar and laser-based lidar.
At the time, he said Waymo was exploring many applications for its technology, including ride-sharing, personal use vehicles, transportation, trucking and logistics. Last week, U.S. auto retailer AutoNation Inc announced a multiyear partnership for vehicle maintenance and repairs for Waymo’s self-driving car operations.
Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Peter Henderson and Lisa Shumaker