Waymo and Lyft Beef Up Self-Driving Programs

Self-driving cars may be years away from getting most consumers around but in limited areas of two US cities, autonomous rides are expanding and seem to be a hit. Waymo recently doubled the size of its operations center in Chandler, Arizona, where it says there are hundreds of participants in its “early rider” program and that more have joined it this summer. Lyft, which is offering self-driving rides through its app in parts of Las Vegas it has announced where riders had taken the cars 5,000 times since launch earlier this year.

It’s one thing to send autonomous vehicles out onto streets in selected areas, often with safety drivers onboard and get people excited about riding in them, or bored by the experience, as Waymo proudly claims. Getting AVs to go everywhere across the US and serve the great mass of consumers is quite another.

Federal legislation designed to create a path to safety reviews for tens of thousands of AVs is stalled and expected to remain so until after the fall elections. Meanwhile, recent tests raised questions about the reliability of even semi-autonomous technology. Some surveys show public support for AVs is declining. Uber has reportedly considered scrapping its autonomous program in the wake of a fatal crash and massive development costs. Yet Waymo and Lyft are forging ahead, adding cars and resources to their targeted services. Their announcements provide a glimpse into the operation of corporate-owned self-driving fleets, which may be the main owners of AVs well into the future.

Lyft is using its ride-hailing network to get riders into autonomous BMWs developed by Aptiv, the car-components giant formerly called Delphi. The cars are offered to Lyft customers traveling between selected locations in Las Vegas, and there are safety drivers onboard. There are 20 cars in the ride-hailing fleet, with 10 more coming online by October, a Lyft representative told TU Automotive. Since the service launched earlier this year, 96% of riders who took the self-driving cars said they planned to do it again, according to Lyft – 20% have ridden the cars more than once.

Waymo, formerly Google’s driverless-car project, started its early rider program in April 2017. There are more than 400 participants and the company says it has begun charging them for some rides as it tests out pricing, AZCentral reported. Waymo has said that it will launch a commercial service in the area this year and that it has a deal to buy more than 60,000 vehicles and expand to other cities.

In a blog post, the company described the roles of staff who run the operation:

  • Fleet Technicians maintain the Waymo-designed sensors on the self-driving vehicles.
  • Fleet Dispatchers manage the fleet, including test and mapping vehicles.
  • Fleet Response team members remotely check on a car’s situation if it encounters an unexpected problem, such as a temporary road closure, and asks for help. The car is responsible for its own safe operation while Fleet Response confirms the situation and tells the car to find a way out, Waymo said but it’s up to the staff to tell other vehicles about the situation so they can route around it.
  • Rider Support staff are on call to answer riders’ questions at all times. Riders can reach them through the Waymo app or a button on the car’s console.

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


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