Waymo, the autonomous driving subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, has said it plans to expand its fully driverless ride offering and make it available to more people.
Until now, the company’s Waymo One service, introduced in 2018, has only been available to a limited number of vetted passengers chosen to test the service, and who are barred from commenting on it by nondisclosure agreements.
Chief executive John Krafcik said the existing members of the pilot programme would be able to take friends and family along on rides, beginning immediately.
Those additional passengers will be free to comment publicly on their experiences, Krafcik said.
Waymo has for years promised to offer a commercial driverless ride-hailing service to the general public.
Krafcik appeared to fulfil that promise in his announcement, saying that the company would open up access to Waymo One to “more people” in its limited service area “over the next several weeks” via a smartphone app.
Waymo shut down all its services earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but said it was again offering fully driverless rides as of 8 October.
After the company has fitted its cars with barriers between the driver and passenger areas, it plans to resume offering rides that include a human backup driver.
Before the pandemic, Waymo says it was offering between 1,000 and 2,000 weekly rides in a designated 50 square mile, mostly residential area that includes the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe.
Between 5 and 10 percent of those rides were fully driverless, or a range of 50 to 200 per week, according to the company.
Waymo said it expects to return to that volume of fully driverless rides by the end of the year.
The rides with human backup drivers, planned for reintroduction later this year, are allowed to operate in a wider area of 100 square miles.
But Krafcik said the company plans to make all its rides fully driverless in the “near term”.
“We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand,” Krafcik said.
Aside from being restricted to a limited area, the driverless vehicles are also remotely monitored by human staff.
Monitoring staff can’t remotely pilot a vehicle, but are instead on hand to give the on-board computer prompts in the event of unexpected events the system isn’t able to understand.
Industry watchers consider Waymo the leader in fully driverless cars, followed by ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft that have also invested heavily in the space, as well as Amazon’s Zoox, General Motors’ Cruise and electric carmaker Tesla.
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