Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google, is finally launching a true, public self-driving taxi service.
This isn't the first time Waymo is allowing the public to ride in its autonomous cars — a service called Waymo One launched in 2018 to ferry people around the greater Phoenix area, but that was limited to select customers and every vehicle had a safety driver to take over in case of an emergency.
This new service will initially be open to existing Waymo One customers in a 50-mile radius around Phoenix. Waymo says anyone can download the Waymo app and be alerted when they're eligible to start riding. So maybe it's not exactly open to the "general public" just yet.
Stable conditions — While the car won't have a driver inside, there will still be staffers watching each car's cameras from afar. The idea is that if the vehicle gets confused — for example, should construction alter the roadway — a staffer can send instructions to the vehicle and send it in a different direction.
Waymo believes that a single staffer can monitor multiple cars at once, making it a lot more efficient than using human drivers. But even for a city like Phoenix that has ideal road conditions, it suggests that Waymo isn't confident enough yet to completely leave the cars to themselves. It expects to do 100 driverless rides per week by the end of the year and expand from there.
In another location like Boston, that's denser and experiences varying weather conditions, it could be another few years before Waymo arrives. Self-driving cars have to be trained to recognize every unique condition they might encounter on the road, and can be stumped by scenarios that a human can intuitively navigate through.
Previous accidents caused by self-driving cars may leave people uneasy about getting in one themselves, though it's worth noting that Waymo has logged several lifetimes of driving between accidents.
Breaking the gig economy — Still, the news is a positive sign that Waymo is making progress after several years of disenchantment about autonomous cars. Someday this type of service could make up a significant portion of transportation. Given the exploitation of labor that ridesharing services like Uber rely on to support their businesses, that can't come soon enough.
One downside might be the potential for self-driving cars to increase urban sprawl; many people think cities are better when cars are replaced by bikes and public transit. They could at least eliminate street parking if they're constantly roving around and returning to central locations, however.
Based on today's announcement, it sounds like Waymo intends to operate its own fleet from day one, rather than sell the self-driving technology to an Uber or Lyft. Maybe in time, once it no longer needs remote monitors, the economics will pencil out so that Waymo can make a profit owning and operating the cars itself. Considering the wages it pays to its remote monitoring staff, it seems unlikely any ride it's providing right now is profitable.