Alphabet Inc’s Waymo has launched a significant development in its costly, decade-long quest for autonomous transportation: self-driving taxis that actually generate fares.
With little fanfare, the company has begun charging passengers to use its driverless vehicles in a roughly 160-kilometer zone in four Phoenix suburbs — Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert — where it has been testing its technology since 2016.
Producing revenue is a strategic milestone, putting Waymo ahead of US rivals, primarily General Motors Co’s Cruise Automation and Uber Technologies Inc, which have yet to launch their own paid self-driving services. All are racing to win customers and recoup billions spent developing the technology.
To use Waymo’s service, dubbed Waymo One, riders must download an app and provide a credit card number, similar to ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. A human driver will be behind the wheel, but only to intervene in case of an emergency.
Major challenges remain, starting with technical hurdles. A Waymo One taxi tested by Reuters last week proved slow and jerky at times. Whether customers will continue using the service once the novelty wears off remains to be seen. Regulations governing the industry across the country are an incoherent patchwork, a significant hurdle to fast expansion.
Waymo would not say exactly how many of its cars would be on the road in Arizona. It said its around-the-clock service initially would be limited to “hundreds” of people invited to sign up last year.
“Over time, we hope to make Waymo One available to even more members of the public,” chief executive John Krafcik wrote in a blog post. “Self-driving technology is new to many, so we’re proceeding carefully.”
The company has been testing its driverless cars for a decade. Its fleet, now numbering 600 vehicles, has logged more than 10 million miles on public roads in and around 25 US cities.
Alphabet does not disclose its total investment, but industry experts put that sum at well over $1 billion. Monetising driverless technology has been slow going. A handful of startups, including Boston-based Optimus Ride, have managed to win contracts providing self-driving services in enclosed, low-speed environments such as business parks and retirement communities.