Self-driving cars ditch backup human in breakthrough

SAN FRANCISCO • For almost a decade, self-driving cars have graced public roads - but always with a person behind the wheel. Now Waymo is yanking the driver.

The autonomous car unit of Google parent Alphabet said on Tuesday it will soon start chauffeuring people in minivans without "safety drivers", staffers that man the steering wheel.

Waymo is doing so in a limited region of Phoenix, where it is running a pilot programme with volunteer passengers.

The move, a first for any company, is a major milestone for the Internet giant's bid to lead the crowded pack trying to commercialise driverless technology.

"We want the experience of travelling with Waymo to be routine, so you want to use our driver for your everyday needs," Waymo's chief executive officer, Mr John Krafcik, said at the Web Summit conference in Portugal. "Fully self-driving cars are here."

Mr Krafcik said a Waymo service will arrive soon, allowing people to hail the cars with a mobile app, similar to services like Uber and Lyft.

Waymo's cars have driven with an empty front seat in its 37ha test site in central California.

The Chrysler minivans have a small graphical interface in the back seat, which lets riders watch the driverless course, and buttons to call customer service or pull the car over.

The Alphabet arm has racked up more autonomous test kilometres on roads than others that are developing the tech, including Ford and Uber. But those companies have existing manufacturing capabilities (like the automakers) and rider networks (like Uber) that Waymo lacks.

Mr Krafcik, a former Ford executive, said that an on-demand service would be the first commercial use case for Waymo. During his appearance at the summit in Lisbon, he also discussed how the vehicles may replace personal car ownership, which is an existential fear of the car industry.

"Because you're accessing vehicles rather than owning, in the future, you could choose from an entire fleet of vehicle options that are tailored to each trip you want to make," Mr Krafcik said. People could claim the cars for a day, a week or even longer, he added.

He ticked off the ways driverless cars could be redesigned if the vehicle did not need space for a driver: to ferry groceries, as a "personal dining room" or for naps.

Waymo's driverless cars will roll out in selected areas of Chandler, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb. Mr Krafcik said the test without drivers will soon expand to the entire metropolitan Phoenix area.

Some states have existing laws that require a human to be in the driver's seat of a vehicle, although Waymo and other companies have lobbied against these. Last month, California regulators peeled back that rule in the state.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'Self-driving cars ditch backup human in breakthrough'. Subscribe