Over the last month, Waymo, Google parent Alphabet’s self-driving car company, has quietly been testing its first production model with a small group of families in Phoenix, Arizona. People have been able to use the cars as needed — to commute to work, school, dinner, soccer practice, and so on. Now, it’s expanding those tests, rolling out a fleet of 500 Chrysler Pacifica minivans equipped with self-driving tech, and allowing a hundred more people who apply to get a chance to be part of the program.
The families aren’t being given cars to test; instead, they simply have access to a Waymo-equipped car at anytime, to go anywhere within the Phoenix metropolitan area. Reading between the lines, it seems like the test is much less about perfecting Waymo’s self-driving tech underneath the hood. Instead, Waymo is looking for data and feedback about what makes people comfortable while riding in self-driving cars, and how they end up using them.
Which makes sense. You don’t iron out the kinks of how to make sure a self-driving car doesn’t run a red light when you’re doing a public test involving parents and their photogenic kids. Plus, the testers aren’t operating the vehicles themselves — there’s a “safety operator” from Waymo present in the car at all times.
Still, it’s interesting (especially in light of the ongoing lawsuit between Waymo and Uber) that this is the public’s first real introduction to Waymo. The test is, at heart, a ride-hailing service in beta, available to a select group of testers to get them around town on demand. The danger this could present to Uber, which has brought on-demand car service to hundreds of cities like Phoenix, where it previously wasn’t readily available, is obvious.
In the long-term, if every car is self-driving and many are available to pick up and drop off people autonomously, car ownership begins to make less sense, even in places like Phoenix where there isn’t enough density and political will to make public transit a viable option for many. If self-driving cars really are the future, it’ll be much closer to the tests going on in Phoenix than to going down to a car lot and picking out the self-driving car of your dreams.
If you live in Phoenix and want to apply, you can do so here: https://waymo.com/apply/.
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