Today fans of self-driving cars have been expecting Waymo for years – widely regarded as a leader in the industry – is finally launching its commercial taxi service "Waymo One" in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
The announcement complies with Waymos long promise to provide a commercial service by the end of the year, but the launch brings important reservations.
First The new service is only offered to Waymo's early riders ̵
And although Waymo has more than Waymo has tested completely driverless vehicles for one year, Waymo has decided to push safety drivers behind the wheel for the commercial rollout that Waymo still has something to do about whether his technology is ready for a completely driverless operation.
Of course, Waymos self-imposed deadline until 2018 has nothing magical. What matters is what happens in the next few months. Can Waymo phase out the security driver, expand his service and make self-driving taxis available to the general public? Or are technical challenges hindering Waymo One's growth, and does not that make much of a renaming of Waymo's existing driver testing program?
As part of the Early Rider program, Waymo invited participants to sign confidentiality agreements. These restrictions will be lifted for customers using Waymo One so they can take photos and videos and share information on social media. Over the next few weeks, we'll learn a lot about how Waymo's technology works in the real world – and does not work.
Waymo competes with Uber and Lyft
Waymo's self-propelled technology is innovative. However, the business model is completely conventional. Waymo One will be a kind of transportation service like Uber or Lyft.
Passengers call vehicles with a Waymo One app that will be available on both iOS and Android phones. As with the Uber and Lyft apps, the user is prompted to enter a pickup location and destination. The app provides estimates of the cost and estimated time of arrival before the customer books the trip.
Tariffs are based on time and distance, and customers can expect the tariffs to be roughly equivalent to what you would pay for a Uber or Lyft trip – maybe even a bit lower. The screenshot provided by Waymo shows a customer who has booked this trip. It is 4.6 miles long and takes about 12 minutes. Waymo charges $ 7.32 for the trip. I deployed the same route in Lyft and Uber Aps on Tuesday afternoon, priced at $ 8.29 and $ 9.38, respectively.
The service will be available in parts of four communities southeast of Phoenix: Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. The Arizona State University is based in Tempe, Intel is heavily represented in Chandler. These are sprawling communities with a total area of more than 300 square miles (and a total population of more than one million inhabitants), but Waymo will initially provide services in less than 100 square miles of that area.
Waymo has made a pre-selection Recommended pick-up and drop-off points throughout the service area – these are marked with a "W" symbol in the screenshot above. Waymo vehicles prefer to deliver customers to these locations, which means customers need to take a short walk at the beginning and end of a journey. It is not clear if all travel to these locations must begin and end, or if customers have the opportunity to force departures to other locations. I will update this story if I have more information from Waymo.
Although the service is officially launched today, most residents in the region can not download the app yet. Waymo still has a relatively small fleet and is likely to be interested in this new technology. To avoid being overburdened (and being negatively affected by long waiting times), Waymo restricts, as mentioned earlier, the initial sign-ups to people already in Waymo's early driver program. In the future, Waymo plans to bring more people into the program with the goal of giving access to everyone in the service area.
What will it be like to drive in a Waymo car?
Customers will welcome a car on their Waymo One app. As soon as they arrive, they get into the backseat. At least in the first few weeks – and possibly longer – there is a driver's seat safety driver who monitors the performance of the vehicle and answers questions from customers. Customers can also call customer support by pressing the Help button on the ceiling above the middle row of seats in the ceiling. You can also request a call from a Waymo Customer Service Representative in the Waymo One app. These options become more important when Waymo finally launches vehicles without safety drivers.
Once customers are ready, press the blue "Start Ride" button on the same control panel.
A pair of touch screens on the back of the seats in the front row keep passengers informed of the progress of the journey. Passengers choose between two different views. A view shows a map of the route and a symbol to mark the current position of the car.
The other view shows a schematic view of the surroundings of the car from a perspective above and behind the car. Pedestrians, cars, buildings and other significant objects are represented as simple geometric shapes. Every few seconds, a ghostly impulse briefly displays a more detailed view, revealing the outlines of trees, lanterns, and other nearby objects.
The purpose of all these points is to strengthen the confidence of passengers who are fully aware of the car's surroundings. Passengers can look out the window and see if the objects they see outside are the same as those on the screen. Sometimes the screen also helps to inform customers about what the car is doing. For example, when a car stops to let a pedestrian cross, it becomes clearer.
The big question: Can Waymo claim its lead?  Waymo is not the first company to launch a commercial self-drive car service – several startups did so at the beginning of the year. With today's launch, Waymo One is by far the most technologically advanced self-drive service on the market. The few startups that have started services work in much smaller, more controlled environments and at lower speeds. Meanwhile, Waymo's larger competitors – including GM's Cruise, Ford's Argo and well-funded startups such as Zoox and Aurora – are one to three years away from launching their own commercial services.
Waymo has such a big lead because Google started investing in technology almost a decade ago – long before most other companies took it seriously. The question now is whether Waymo can effectively use his early lead.
That would mean expanding quickly to other cities and giving Waymo time to establish itself before the rivals hit the market. In June, Waymo ordered 62,000 Pacifica minivans – a sign that the company is thinking markets beyond Phoenix.
But Waymo will not be able to fully concentrate on expanding into new cities until he dominates driverless operations in Phoenix. Setting, training and monitoring security drivers is costly and time consuming, so Waymo's expansion will be seriously slowed down and likely to become unprofitable if required for each city in which it provides service.
The big question, that's why Waymo starts his service with security drivers after more than a year of completely driverless vehicles. It's possible that the technology is about to be finished, and that Waymo only works with security drivers for security reasons. After all, Waymo already has them in the workforce, so using them at start time is hardly a disadvantage.
However, it is also possible that Waymo's technology is not yet ready for complete driverless operation. An August measuring spoon from The Information's Amir Efrati offers a pessimistic view:
The vast majority of Waymo's test mobile continues to use safety drivers. Normally, the cars driving without a person were in relatively small residential areas in Chandler, Arizona, where there is little traffic, according to the people who are familiar with the program. And these vehicles are closely monitored by remote operators who can help the cars when they encounter problems. In his public statements Waymo also did not announce that the driverless test was limited: vehicles were not allowed to make unprotected left turns on fast roads. "It was hypercontrolled," said a person involved in the exam. The tests have since progressed, but they are generally outside the high traffic areas.
This report is from a few months and should therefore be taken with salt. However, if Waymo technology is far from being prepared for complete driverless operation, it could put Waymo into a real bump. The company has spent a lot on cars, personnel and other infrastructure to provide driverless large car service. If Waymo can not achieve completely driverless operation in a service area large enough to actually make it useful, these investments could be wasted.
I do not want to be too negative here. Even most of Waymo's competitors privately admit they are technologically behind Waymo. And Waymo's parent company has endless financial resources. If they have to lose money, if they work with security drivers for a few months – or even a few years – they can probably afford to bear the loss that they are only in the market.
And while Waymo seems to be doing so With slower progress than the company hoped a year or two ago, there's a fair chance that Waymo's competitors will encounter the same problems. GM's Cruise plans to launch a taxi service without steering wheels by the end of next year. Given Waymo's difficulties, I would not be surprised if the company relocated the launch by 2020 or – like Waymo – launches a first service with security drivers before becoming completely driverless.