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Waymo One, the first commercial robotaxi service, is now picking up passengers in Arizona

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, 10:18 a.m.
An autonomous Chrysler Pacifica crosses an intersection in Chandler, Arizona, in this photo from Waymo in 2017.
An autonomous Chrysler Pacifica crosses an intersection in Chandler, Arizona, in this photo from Waymo in 2017.

Robot cars are now officially a real business. Waymo on Wednesday launched a commercial robot ride-hailing service in Arizona called Waymo One.

Like Uber or Lyft, customers will summon a ride with a smartphone app. But in this case, the car will be driving itself.

“This is a game changer. It’s historical in nature,” said Grayson Brulte, who heads driverless car consulting firm Brulte & Co.

Only “a few hundred customers” will have access to the app and participate in the early stages, according to Waymo, which is an arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc. Although the cars will drive themselves, a Waymo engineer will sit behind the wheel in case anything goes wrong. Waymo did not say when the cars will start arriving without a human minder or when the program will be expanded.

Waymo’s cars, Chrysler Pacifica minivans bristling with autonomous driving technology, are available in several eastern and southeastern Phoenix suburbs, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. The fares are similar to those charged by Uber and Lyft.

Waymo has ferried Phoenix-area passengers in robot cars since April 2017 in what the company calls its Early Rider program. Unlike Early Rider — which Waymo will continue — Waymo One customers won’t be required to sign nondisclosure agreements and won’t be expected to continually provide feedback about their experience.

Waymo One represents the beginnings of a business that could be worth a lot of money. How much, no one yet knows: Wall Street estimates of Waymo’s market value, should it be spun off, range from $50 billion to $175 billion.

Waymo began driverless-car development in 2009. Although dozens of companies, from small start-ups to major motor vehicle manufacturers, are developing driverless systems, Waymo is considered the emerging industry’s leader — in large part because of Google’s expertise in mapping and machine learning combined with the rich ample investment dollars churned out by Google’s search advertising money machine.

There appears to be far more demand for the service than Waymo is able or willing to provide at present. The Early Rider program attracted 20,000 applicants, the company said, but only about 400 were chosen.

A big reason for the slo-mo nature of commercial rollout, according to Waymo, is safety.

“Self-driving technology is new to many, so we’re proceeding carefully with the comfort and convenience of our riders in mind,” Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik said in a statement.

The emerging driverless car industry suffered a blow in March when an Uber robot car hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The experimental vehicle, with an apparently inattentive Uber employee behind the wheel, plowed into a woman walking a bicycle across a highway at night. Although the pedestrian wasn’t in a crosswalk, neither the human driver nor the driverless system applied the brakes until after the woman was hit.

Deaths involving Tesla’s Autopilot system have also drawn headlines, although Autopilot is not intended to be used as an autonomous system.

Practically every company developing driverless cars uses a combination of radar, optical, ultrasound and lidar sensors — except Tesla, which has said expensive lidar, which uses laser light to detect objects, will not be necessary for the driverless cars it plans to deploy.

Even if robot cars prove safer than human drivers — one of the intended aims — bad publicity from freak accidents or manufacturer missteps could slow the technology’s acceptance by the general public and political representatives.

The Phoenix area was chosen deliberately for its friendliness to driverless cars — and not just because of the support of Arizona’s governor and local officials. (Regulations on driverless cars are less stringent in Arizona than in California.)

The flat, snow-free desert terrain, the well-kept and well-marked roads, the scarcity of trees to block street signs, and sun-blasted sidewalks on which few pedestrians tread all lend themselves to early robot car deployment.

Other companies are planning to take on more challenging environments. GM-Cruise announced plans to offer a commercial robotaxi service on the streets of San Francisco by the end of this year, but according to Reuters technical problems have delayed the rollout.

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