- Waymo riders in Phoenix could soon be taking trips in a "fully driverless" car without a safety driver, according to an email sent to users that was posted on Reddit and confirmed by TechCrunch and other media outlets.
- The email says riders will be notified in the app if their autonomous vehicle (AV) will not have a safety driver. Instead, users will be provided a "rider support agent" available through the app or the car’s help button.
- Riders will also have the option in the app to tap a button and learn more about the fully driverless rides, something Waymo said is "the next step as we travel down the road toward a fully self-driving future."
Less than a year after Waymo launched its self-driving taxi service in Phoenix, this latest step signifies the company feels increasingly comfortable with its AV technology and operations. In addition to its Phoenix service, Waymo logged 1.2 million test miles in California last year and announced it will expand its footprint in Arizona with a new technical center in Mesa.
The company has continued to build on that progress by partnering with ride-hailing giant Lyft to offer its AVs through the Lyft app, while also touting technology that can detect pedestrians, bikes and other obstacles. The removal of some safety drivers will be a major test of that software.
It remains to be seen how effective the AVs will be in reducing congestion. Waymo's email said customers will be able to "enjoy having the car all to yourself" without a safety driver, suggesting the service is perhaps designed to be a solitary experience.
This announcement from Waymo does also appear to have beaten Tesla to the punch in rolling out a robotaxi network. Telsa CEO Elon Musk pledged to have service next year, although little outward progress appears to have been made, while other companies like Zoox jockey for their own slice of the market.
Memories are still fresh from the fatal crash in Tempe, AZ last year involving an Uber AV, which struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg. That self-driving car had a safety driver, albeit allegedly distracted by streaming video when the crash happened. That case will be front-of-mind during this new rollout, especially as the car's software was blamed for the crash.
If Waymo can avoid serious accidents with this new service, it means the advent of a new chapter in AV development, even as others in the space say full service is still a long way off.