Waymo’s Early Rider Program Hits Anniversary Milestone

Waymo, the self-driving vehicle division of Google parent company Alphabet, is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its early rider program with a blog post illustrating the various reasons its more than 400 riders hop an autonomous lift.

Residents in the Phoenix area, where the test program is based, have been taking advantage of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to catch rides home from school, make trips to the grocery store, or simply to kick back and enjoy a drive around town without having to actually drive.

Waymo is also building systems to let riders ask questions or get assistance at any point before, during or after the journey with the tap of a button inside the vehicle or through a mobile app. Questions range from queries about lost sunglasses to service animals onboard — the answer is they’re allowed.

Among the early riders featured in the blog post is Neha, who had avoided driving ever since seeing a fatal car crash years ago.

She says it’s “mind-blowing” that self-driving cars now allow her to run errands and commute back and forth to work, while a one-car family has deployed Waymo’s self-driving cars to help the parents keep up with their two teenage daughters’ busy social lives.

“What’s surprising is that the car sees everything — everything around you,” early rider Lilla said in Waymo’s latest promotional video. “I grew up in a place where I was required to have a car. Now I get to live in a world where it’s not required.”

As Waymo plans to expand its self-driving, ride-sharing services across the US, the company has ordered “thousands” of Pacifica minivans to expand its ever-growing autonomous vehicle fleet.

Meanwhile, the company has been on a high-profile charm offensive since the pilot program began, releasing a video in March seemingly designed to assuage the doubts of Americans who view with skepticism the safety and security of autonomous vehicles.

The company first began test-driving its minivans on public roads in Phoenix without a driver at the wheel in November 2017, and debuted a nearly two minute-long video in April of that year to help garner support for its early rider program.

As an early rider, Phoenix residents can use Waymo’s self-driving cars to go places they frequent every day — work, school or the movies — to name a few examples.

Waymo then gathers feedback to help the company’s team figure out how self-driving cars will work as the program expands. The company’s anniversary blog post noted the early rider program continues to take applications.

The early rider program covers several parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.

While it may be all bright smiles and safe trips in the Waymo video, a rash of accidents involving self-driving cars — including one involving a Waymo vehicle in Arizona — has made an already skeptical American public even more wary of autonomous vehicle technology.

According to a poll published in May by AAA, nearly three-quarters — 73% — of US drivers reported that they would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, a jump from 63% at the end of last year.

Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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