What are Self-driving Taxis
Self-Driving Taxis, Steering wheel’s moving. The seat belt’s fastened. No one’s behind the wheel. Robotaxis are real, at least here in Chandler, Arizona, where Waymo has been offering fully driverless rides for more than a year. Waymo’s looking left, Waymo’s looking right. All right.
And in August it expanded to San Francisco, but rides here still have a driver behind the wheel. The supporting driver does have hands on the wheel, not always gripping the steering wheel, but always hovering around the wheel. It’s an important test for the company, as it could provide a roadmap for expansion into other cities, but the race is on.
General Motors Cruise is also testing driverless cabs in San Francisco. – You could really build a sizable ride-hailing business if you set up operations here. – But rising costs and tech limitations have slowed driverless car companies down.
So can Waymo, with operations in Phoenix and now in San Francisco, pick up the pace and bring its robocalls to more cities and more passengers? To find out, we spoke to company leaders, and yes, took a couple of rides.
We’re here at Waymo’s depot in San Francisco, a city that represents an important test for the company as it looks to expand its service, and well, it’s got a lot of cars. Waymo’s ride-hailing service, Waymo One, is new in San Francisco, but the company, formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, has been testing here for more than a decade.
– San Francisco provides a wide diversity of not only geographies but also a diversity of the kind of interactions that we’ll have on the road itself. – So you can see, we’re in a little bit of a busier part of the neighbourhood here. There are cars parked along the right. There’s a truck here, stopped on loading.
Waymo rides in San Francisco, like the one the company invited “The Wall Street Journal” to take, are currently done with a driver at the wheel. But the company says it’s the tech aboard its vehicles that are making the majority of the decisions. The tech that I can actually see here, what are the main components?
– The LiDAR, which is 360 degrees at the top, while the smaller ones are on the side, the perimeter LiDAR. We have cameras, 29 different cameras, positioned throughout the vehicle, and radar is the third kind.
And then lastly, within the trunk is where we have the majority of our computing systems, so the systems that take all those signals together and combine them, run them through our software, to help the car determine what it should do next.
– All of Waymo’s passengers, or Trusted Testers, in San Francisco have signed nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from sharing their experience. Well, except for me. So right now, Waymo’s driving us around a pretty residential area. Lots of stop signs. No stoplights on the route so far.
I think seeing the supporting driver’s hands hovering and sometimes grabbing the wheel itself is providing a little bit of additional security for me. Waymo really likes to stick to the speed limit. Last week, a Waymo car hit a pedestrian in San Francisco.
Waymo tests urban terrain with self-driving taxis
The company said the vehicle was being driven by a human driver in manual mode when it struck the pedestrian, who was treated for injuries at the scene and transported to a hospital by ambulance.
The company said, “The trust and safety of the communities in which we drive are paramount to us, and we will continue investigating this incident in partnership with local authorities.” So far, seven companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have received permits from the State to test autonomous vehicles without a driver.
Waymo Moral issues
But Waymo wants to be the first to offer its service to the public. How far off do you think you are from being able to pull the autonomous specialists from the vehicle? – Our current focus is really continuing to develop a safe and convenient experience for all of our riders, so no specific timelines to share at this time.
– [Adam] Success in San Francisco could help provide a revenue-generating business for Waymo. Analysts estimate its cars cost $200,000 and it can’t yet charge passengers for rides in the city.
– They don’t need to operate a robot taxi fleet in a ton of markets because if you look at the business performance and results of Uber and Lyft, they mostly come from just a handful of cities around the world, like 10 cities. – [Adam] WSJ reporter Tripp Mickle covers Alphabet.
He lives in San Francisco and, like many residents there, has been seeing Waymo’s cars a lot. – They seem to be on a rotation or a loop in terms of what routes they drive.
– To see what Waymo could look like in future markets, we went to Waymo’s first location, a 50-square-mile area around Chandler, Arizona. Here, Waymo has pulled the driver support and riders can now hail robot taxis themselves.
Waymo Terminology and safety considerations
The wheel is moving by itself. When did you know it was time to pull the driver out of the Waymo here in Chandler? – We evaluate the performance of the driver, the Waymo driver, on a given operation domain.
We evaluate it against general features of topography, geography, weather, and also specific features such as the unprotected left turns and the ability to handle a large parking lot.
That is the process that we used to release our technology here in Chandler. (bright music) – After travelling more than 65,000 miles around Chandler without a human behind the wheel, Waymo opened up its ride-hailing services to passengers like me, willing to try. While there, I spent about an hour in the back of a Waymo.
We’re turning. There it goes. I took three separate rides, including one in the dark. Waymo encountered construction, an emergency vehicle, and took three rights to avoid a left, though I did experience one unprotected left turn. Waiting for the intersection to clear, and it is starting and stopping a lot.
Okay. You may be good now, Waymo. Ooh. All right, we did it. – [Waymo] Arriving shortly. – [Adam] Waymo was a defensive driver, but the experience took some getting used to. The biggest hurdle, trusting the tech. – Trust needs to be earned and we earn it by our excellent track record. And we also earn it through transparency and really engaging with the public.
– [Adam] Before opening up its ride-hailing service to the public, Waymo published safety data from its tests around Chandler. It reported 18 collisions over a span of about 6 million miles driven. – None of those collisions was serious in nature, but regardless, every single event is a learning experience.
Waymo Levels of driving automation
– Do you have any updated data since launching the ride-hailing service here in Chandler? – And I’ll tell you that the positive trends that we saw in that first report, where we evaluated 6 million miles, has continued through our service.
– [Adam] The company says it completes hundreds of rides in the Chandler area each week and has served tens of thousands of riders there. – It’s put them at the forefront of the driverless car effort, but it’s also Chandler, Arizona.
It’s not, you know, in 50 states, or much less two states. It’s really in one, you know, one suburb of Phoenix. – Waymo’s ambitions, however, are greater. It’s now testing in 25 cities across the US, though the company wouldn’t say where it plans to offer rides next.
What’s slowing Waymo down from expanding to cities across the US? – It’s technology, really. There’s been a realization, broadly, across the self-driving industry that their ambitions and hopes of creating something that was like a computer model that can be scaled and dropped anywhere, in any city, is not totally realistic.
– It took Waymo three years of on-the-streets testing before it offered its ride-hailing service in the Chandler area alone. What can we draw from that pace for Waymo’s future expansion? – I don’t know if that’s a great proxy.
We build on our experience and our technology such that it takes us less and less time to learn the intricacies and be able to drive safely and reliably in any market.
– Because of this, Waymo expects to pick up the pace, and it might need to. Cruise has raised more than $9 billion to support its robot taxi efforts. Waymo has raised nearly 6 billion.
But just how many riders will hop in the back of one of these robot taxis, remains to be seen? Ride done. – [Waymo] We’ve arrived.