Weekly Brief: There’s Reason Behind Waymo’s Damp Squib Robo-Taxi Launch

Talk about a letdown. Waymo’s launch of its commercialized robo-taxi service last week was supposed to be a revolutionary moment in the history of the automotive industry.

Here was an event that would usher in a whole new era of mobility, one in which fleets of driverless cars whiz about our streets while humans hop in and out of them as they please, unburdened by the demands of driving and freed of the cost of car insurance, maintenance, parking, and gasoline. Some geniuses even speculated that Waymo robo-taxis, once launched in fully commercialized form, would be so revolutionary as to offer rides for free. I regret to admit that one of those geniuses was me.

The reality is a shadow of the hype. Waymo’s commercialized ride-hailing service, which we now know is called Waymo One, isn’t fully self-driving as Waymo had suggested it would be. Every single Chrysler Pacifica Minivan in Waymo’s fleet still has a safety driver behind the wheel. Its service isn’t open to the general public either, something Waymo also promised and which it, somehow, still seems to believe is true despite all evidence to the contrary. If you fly down to Phoenix, Arizona, and pop out into the sunny suburb of Chandler, you’ll see dozens of Waymos buzzing around but you won’t be able to flag one down. You won’t be able to order one on the Waymo app either. You won’t be able to get in one if you go to the Waymo depot. That’s right, the only way to hitch a ride in a Waymo robo-taxi is to be a member of the Early Rider pilot program that Waymo has run for the past year.

That means the only real difference between pre-launch and post-launch is that the people who were part of the free trial can now continue using the service at a cost, which, according to early reports at least, they don’t seem all that inclined to do. You see, Waymo taxis drive really slowly compared to your standard Uber, Lyft or conventional taxi, and they struggle most of the time when they have to turn left across traffic. That’s fine if the ride is free and you’re being incentivized to partake in a pilot. When your own hard-earned cash is on the line, speed and quality start to factor in.

Now that the launch has come and gone, this all seems more like a rebranding exercise than a revolutionary moment for the auto industry. Early Rider is now Waymo One just like the San Francisco Soup Company is now Ladle & Leaf. The core offering hasn’t much changed, just the name on the door.

Should we care anyway? Sure we should. A robo-taxi company has finally launched a commercialized service. While it may be barely more than a pilot right now, all signs point toward Waymo ramping this up to more people and more locations in the near future.

Nor should we fault Waymo for taking this slowly. The fact is that the stakes are way too high when there are human lives on the line. Uber taught us that lesson last year when one of its self-driving test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, an accident that caused Arizona to kick Uber out of the state and caused Uber to shutter its self-driving business for half a year – they didn’t even have a passenger onboard, let alone a paying customer. Imagine that same scenario if a member of the general public had been there to witness the carnage. Imagine the social media pictures, the memes, the reviews, the fallout. It would be catastrophic, not just for Waymo but for the whole fledgling robo-taxi industry. Baby steps, therefore, do make sense.

Indeed, there’s a lot to celebrate here. After 10 years of research and development, after millions of miles of simulated and real-world autonomous driving, after building an entire replica city in the desert to fine-tune its technology and leading the way into real-world pilots and now commercialized services, we should all recognize exactly what Waymo has accomplished.

The big takeaway, however, is not how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go. Waymo is far and away the leader among its self-driving competitors, be they carmakers or tech companies. General Motors’ Cruise has been talking a big game about a 2019 launch of a commercialized service. Don’t get your hopes up. Cruise is years behind Waymo. Lyft and Uber and Delphi are too. The truth is that we’re in for a long, slow and pretty boring ride here as self-driving cars move into the mainstream. A decade from now the safety driver may be gone. So, too, will the excitement factor.

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