Fully self-driving cars are making inroads. Alphabet, Inc. subsidiary Waymo announced it will stop using human backup safety drivers when testing its autonomous vehicles. It also plans to launch a commercial driverless taxi service in the near future.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik made the announcement at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal in November 2017.
While Waymo hasn't yet provided a launch date for its taxi service, Krafcik did say that similar to ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, the company would let users hail cars via a smartphone app. The self-driving taxi service would be free to use at first, with fees imposed at a later date.
The game-changing news comes just weeks after the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly approved proposals to fast-track the testing and deployment of self-driving cars. The bipartisan legislation would allow automakers to apply for exemptions to federal safety standards that mandate human controls, and prevent states from throwing up regulatory roadblocks to prevent the introduction of self-driving technology.
The Self-Driving Technology Race
Waymo isn't the only company working to bring self-driving cars to the U.S. market. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Uber Technologies Inc., and others are in production and testing with autonomous vehicles. However, by announcing its plans to launch the first commercial self-driving taxi service, Waymo has effectively leapt ahead of the competition. Waymo's self-driving cars have also logged more test miles on public roads than other companies developing autonomous vehicle technologies.
Despite Waymo's recent advancements, companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Uber Technologies Inc. have an advantage because of existing manufacturing capabilities and rider networks.
Humans on Hand
To date, the self-driving cars tested in the United States had a human driver behind the wheel who could take over in the event of a malfunction or emergency. Waymo's willingness to forgo the use of backup safety drivers and open its self-driving fleet to the public signals confidence in its autonomous vehicle technology.
However, this doesn't mean Waymo customers will be unable to access safety features. A Waymo employee will still accompany customers to start, but from the back seat. Additionally, Waymo's fleet of self-driving Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans are equipped with a small graphical interface that allows users to view the driverless route, contact customer service, or pull over the car.
Waymo will operate the fully driverless subset of its fleet in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. The company plans to expand its coverage area over time.
With its wide roads, consistent good weather, and relaxed regulatory environment, Phoenix is an ideal location for Waymo to test its self-driving cars and taxi service. Waymo is also testing autonomous vehicles in Detroit to see how its technology performs in less forgiving conditions.
Accidents Involving Self-Driving Cars Likely to Increase
Though self-driving technology is expected to improve traffic safety over time, the public shouldn't expect an immediate reduction in traffic accidents, injuries, and fatalities, according to Nidhi Kalra, the lead author of a new self-driving safety study. Kalra says as more autonomous vehicles hit the open road, people should anticipate hearing more stories about accidents involving self-driving vehicles. However, in her report, Kalra also argued that despite the likelihood for an initial increase in accidents, the benefits of adopting self-driving cars greatly outweighs the risks.
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