Arizona OKs Waymo’s Commercial Ride-Hailing Service

Waymo has won permission from Arizona to turn its futuristic self-driving taxi experiment in Phoenix into a commercial service.With a vehicle-for-hire permit in hand, the autonomous car division of Google parent company Alphabet is one step closer to launching the service it’s been trying out around Phoenix for several months. Arizona issued the permit on January 24, according to Quartz.

Waymo says it plans to launch the service this year and has ordered “thousands” of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans for its fleet. It’s testing the technology in five states and has been offering free rides in a trial program in Phoenix since early last year.

Last November, Waymo sent minivans out without safety drivers to take over if the vehicle made a mistake.

The upcoming service will put the Google juggernaut into the ride-hailing business against Uber and Lyft, and with a game-changing technology advantage that neither rival has developed quite to the point Waymo has reached. Robotic taxis without drivers could slash the cost of rides for consumers and dramatically increase the scale of ride-hailing services — if local, state and federal laws allow it and there are no collisions that raise safety alarms with the public and regulators.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi predicted last week that self-driving cars would reduce the cost of the average ride from $2.50 per mile to $1 per mile.

Fear of Google muscling its way into the industry led Uber to hire some of Google’s top automotive engineers in 2016, making the acquisition that led to Waymo and Uber’s recent court battle that was settled earlier this month. In 2013, the two companies had formed a partnership to combine Google’s cars with Uber’s ride-hailing platform, but that deal died of Google’s neglect, according to Uber founder Travis Kalanick.

Still, the race among the three companies is more complex than a pure rivalry. Google Ventures invested more than $250 million in Uber in 2013, Alphabet put $1 billion into Lyft last year, and Waymo won a $245 million stake in Uber in this month’s settlement. Alphabet may not want to enter the ride-hailing business all over the world, given the massive resources that would take, industry analyst Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research said earlier this month. Waymo might end up part of either rival company.

Meanwhile, Uber hopes to put autonomous cars into commercial service within 18 months, and Lyft announced a self-driving ride pilot in Boston last year and offered demonstration rideswith different partner during International CES in Las Vegas last month.

If autonomous ride services like these catch on, they may help save the environment.

On Tuesday, oil giant BP predicted that a combination of electric vehicles, shared mobility services and self-driving cars could reduce the use of oil for cars by 2040 — or at least keep it from growing. BP’s annual long-range forecast predicted the world’s cars will use 18.6 billion barrels per day (bpd), down from 18.7 billion bpd in 2016.

The company expects a boom in shared, autonomous vehicles in the 2030s, with most of those vehicles having electric drivetrains because they require less maintenance.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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