Look out Uber! Waymo is set to launch a commercial driverless taxi fleet in the Phoenix area.
By Murray Slovick, Contributing Editor
The race to place self-driving cars into the work-a-day world is heating up, and not just with the promise of warmer weather ahead. In late January, Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent firm Alphabet, got the approval of Arizona authorities to operate as a Transportation Network Company (TNC). That gives it the green light to launch the United States’ first commercial self-driving taxi fleet.
Waymo now reports that later this year it plans to debut its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid models (see image) as a full-scale paid public service in Phoenix.
In doing so, Waymo is turning up the heat on ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, both of whom have received TNC status from Arizona for their traditional, driver-based, ride-hailing service. Uber in particular has serious self-driving aspirations of its own, but is not ready to launch an actual full-scale service based on autonomous vehicles.
Waymo has been testing in Arizona since April, when select Phoenix residents signed up for its Early Rider Program, giving them 24/7 access to the taxi service for free. Waymo now can start charging riders for its service, which can be accessed from a computer or an app. Initially, there were engineers in the driver’s seats to take control of the car in case of emergencies, but starting in November, the hailed vehicles became driverless.
Waymo says its vehicles in Phoenix have already driven more than four million miles on public roads. It’s not clear whether Waymo will start providing rides to paying customers without a backup driver behind the wheel.
However, the company has been testing vehicles on public roads without drivers, and says it plans to launch a driverless ride-hailing service in “several US cities.” In fact, in January, Waymo began testing its self-driving cars in its 25th U.S. city—Atlanta, Georgia. Other cities that have seen service being tested include Detroit and San Francisco.
In all, Waymo’s cars have driven over 4 million self-driven miles since it began as a Google project in 2009, according to the company.
Last month, Waymo announced it was set to buy thousands more of the modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans—plug-in hybrids with an all-electric range of 33 miles. Waymo provides the self-driving hardware and software technology, and Chrysler builds it into the Pacifica. With room for up to eight passengers, the vehicle is seen as well-suited for a ride-hailing service.
The starting retail price for the 2018 Fiat Chrysler Pacifica hybrid is one Abraham Lincoln ($5) under $40,000. First deliveries to Waymo are expected at the end of 2018.
Waymo is partnering with Avis to service and store its Chrysler Pacifica fleet in Arizona.