Weekly Brief: Waymo One Celebrates Birthday with Apple App Store Launch

Waymo One turned one year old last week, and hardly anyone bothered to notice.

It was a stark contrast from Waymo One’s launch a year ago, when it was hailed as a seminal moment for the self-driving car industry. Many believed that Waymo One represented the leading edge of a tidal wave and that within a year or two robo-taxis would be deployed in major cities throughout the US and the developed world.

In the year since, that tidal wave has revealed itself to be little more than a ripple. General Motors’ Cruise, which had promised a rival service to Waymo One in 2019, back-pedalled and still hasn’t provided an update for when it plans to launch its autonomous ride-hailing service. Ford and others followed suit. The story of 2019 was one of retreat and concessions. It turns out that it’s really hard to safely deploy self-driving cars on public roads (who knew? – Ed) and no one wants to be the next Uber and risk jeopardizing their place in the industry or the industry itself.

In this respect, Waymo One’s first birthday is significant. One year after launching, with 12 months of moving real paying customers around in real robo-taxis, no one has been hurt and there’s been no real drama, save for some locals getting frustrated with how slowly Waymo vehicles drive. Waymo may have global ambitions but, for now, it seems perfectly content to operate in one small market and slowly ramp up its vehicle count and customer pool.

To mark its anniversary, Waymo released some new insights into the Waymo One service. Active rider count is now up to 1,500 customers, which represents more than a ten-fold increase from a year ago and weekly rides have tripled in that time. Waymo has actively integrated new features into its cars based on customer feedback. Some of these features include personal music streaming through in-vehicle speakers, dark mode to make screens dimmer at night, a zoom feature that allows riders to take a closer look at what the car is seeing, and a map view that allows riders to see where they are along their route.

Waymo said that one area that needs work is pickups and drop-offs. Services like Uber and Lyft routinely get away with double parking or pulling up to curbs where vehicles aren’t supposed to be parked. Waymo can’t flout the regulations as these two can by using ‘contractors’ taking the risk of getting fined. Also Waymo One riders can’t communicate with drivers, which makes it even more difficult. So, Waymo says it’s had to make it easier for users to pinpoint their pickup and drop-off locations. It’s also started providing recommended pickup and drop-off spots.

Waymo didn’t elaborate on its 2020 plans beyond the fact that it intends to keep growing its service in Phoenix. To that end, the company launched its app on the Apple App Store last week. Any iPhone user can now download the app with the tap of a button. Granted, only those in Phoenix can actually do anything once they’ve logged into the app. Newcomers there will be added to a waitlist to join Waymo’s Early Rider program, where they can enjoy free rides in return for playing the guinea pig with Waymo’s latest driverless experiments. Those who stick with the Early Rider program for long enough will graduate to Waymo One.

To be clear, Waymo already offered its app to iPhone users. It’s just that in the past only those who were admitted to the Early Rider program in Phoenix could download it, from a special link that the company sent via email. Now anyone can, no matter where they are in the world, and dream about the day when Waymo will come to their town too. A piece of friendly advice: don’t lose sleep waiting.

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