Waymo’s CEO Sees Limits to Self-Driving on Eve of Launch

Waymo will reportedly put its self-driving taxis out for hire in Phoenix early next month, but the company’s CEO doubts that go-anywhere, all-conditions robocars will ever exist.

The long-awaited autonomous ride service with roots in Google’s self-driving car project is set to go live in early December, according to a November 12 Bloomberg report. The first commercial riders will probably be current members of Waymo’s early rider group, and pricing will be set to compete with Uber and Lyft, Bloomberg said.

But while Waymo has made big bets on expansion, including promises to buy more than 60,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace SUVs, CEO John Krafcik reportedly predicts it will take decades before autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous.

Even when they’re widespread, AVs won’t be able to traverse every road under all conditions, Krafcik said at the Wall Street Journal D.Live conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., according to a CNET report. This would mean that even so-called Level 5 autonomy, the stage that should allow for cars without steering wheels, will have limitations.

Krafcik speaks with some authority on that subject, since Waymo has racked up more than 10 million test miles on public roads and billions more in simulation. Krafcik has said the more things Waymo tries to train cars for, the more the company learns about what it doesn’t know. And AV testing in certain kinds of conditions, such as snow, is still in its infancy.

That won’t stop Waymo, currently considered the front-runner in autonomous ride-hailing, from gradually turning its months-long early rider program in Phoenix into a commercial operation.

The ride-hailing service will use a new brand name and compete directly against Uber and Lyft, Bloomberg reported, citing an unnamed source. It will start out slowly with dozens or hundreds of authorized customers, probably from the early rider program of about 400 families, the report said. One change for these participants will be that they will no longer be under a non-disclosure agreement as they are now.

Some of the cars will have safety drivers on board to help passengers and potentially take over driving if needed, but Waymo will be phasing in fully driverless vehicles for the commercial service, Bloomberg said.

The Phoenix-area testing ground covers about 100 square miles, but most early users today are in a smaller portion of that area, Krafcik said in a video from his appearance at the D.Live conference. Those participants can use an app to hail a car at any time of the day or night to take them anywhere in the service area, he said. In addition, Walmart has been testing a service in which Waymo cars bring shoppers to its stores.

From Phoenix, Waymo plans to expand its service to more cities. The company recently received California’s first permit for driverless cars, and testing is expected to start soon in cities near Waymo’s Silicon Valley headquarters. It has also founded a Chinese subsidiary, called Huimo, for self-driving vehicle parts, products and consulting, according to Automotive News.

“This is a very long journey, it’s a very challenging technology, and we’re going to take our time,” Krafcik said in the D.Live video.

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


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