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Waymo may start first driverless car service in December

New York

IN JUST a few weeks, humanity may take its first paid ride into the age of driverless cars. Waymo, the secretive subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc, is planning to launch the world's first commercial driverless car service in early December, according to a person familiar with the plans. It will operate under an entirely new brand and compete directly with Uber and Lyft.

Waymo is keeping the new name a closely guarded secret until the formal announcement, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the plans haven't been made public.

"Waymo has been working on self-driving technology for nearly a decade, with safety at the core of everything we do," the company said in an e-mailed statement. A Waymo spokesperson declined to comment on the name of the new service or timing of the launch.

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It is a big milestone for self-driving cars, but it won't exactly be a "flip-the-switch" moment. Waymo isn't planning a splashy media event, and the service won't be appearing in an app store anytime soon, according to the person familiar with the programme. Instead, things will start small - perhaps dozens or hundreds of riders in the suburbs around Phoenix, covering about 100 square miles.

The first wave of customers is likely to be drawn from Waymo's Early Rider Program - a test group of 400 volunteer families who have been riding Waymos for more than a year. The customers who move to the new service will be released from their non-disclosure agreements, which means they will be free to talk about it, snap selfies, and take friends or even members of the media along for rides.

New customers in the Phoenix area will be gradually phased in as Waymo adds more vehicles to its fleet to ensure a balance of supply and demand. The launch of a commercial ride-hailing service will mark an end to the intense secrecy that's surrounded Waymo's programme - and self-driving research in general - since Google first started working on it a decade ago.

"This positions Waymo really far ahead of everyone else," said Nick Albanese, an intelligent mobility analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "GM is the other leader, and they're probably more than a year away from doing this. It's very impressive."

Being first has its advantages. It establishes credibility and allows Waymo to build out a network of vehicles, maintenance depots and support services robust enough to draw customers away from Uber and Lyft.

The early start also makes Waymo's ride-hailing service worth about US$80 billion - even before the service is launched - according to an analysis by six Morgan Stanley analysts in August. Opportunities in trucking logistics and technology licensing add another US$96 billion in current value, according to the analysts.

Still, Waymo doesn't have an insurmountable head start. GM plans to start a similar ride-hailing service late next year, while Tesla, Daimler, Volkswagen and other competitors aren't far behind - each with their own approach to solving the technological and social challenges of taking human drivers out of the car.

When Waymo starts its commercial programme, there will be backup drivers in the car to help ease customers into the service and to take over if necessary, according to the person familiar with the plans. The fleet of heavily modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans will drive themselves more than 99.9 per cent of the time, based on data from Waymo's test programme submitted to California regulators.

Waymo's plan is to plant the seeds of these driverless car programmes in different metro areas across the US, and to gradually expand outward. It's a careful, almost plodding process meant to avoid the bad customer experiences and avoidable crashes that could set a programme back by years.

By the time Waymo's service becomes a household name in the US, like industry giants Lyft or Uber, the company will have mapped and tested every road in excruciating detail. BLOOMBERG