Real driverless cars could come to the Phoenix area this year, according to a Monday report from The Information’s Amir Efrati. Two anonymous sources have told Efrati that Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, is preparing to launch “a commercial ride-sharing service powered by self-driving vehicles with no human ‘safety’ drivers as soon as this fall.”
Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Waymo will hit this ambitious target. But it’s a sign that Waymo believes its technology is very close to being ready for commercial use. And it suggests that Waymo is likely to introduce a fully driverless car network in 2018 if it doesn’t do so in the remaining months of 2017.
Waymo plans to launch first in the Phoenix suburbs
Efrati reports that Waymo CEO John Krafcik faces pressure from his boss, Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page, to transform Waymo’s impressive self-driving technology into a shipping product. Page had been pushing for a launch by the end of 2016. But a major deal with Ford to produce the necessary vehicles fell through, forcing Waymo to scramble and sign a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to supply minivans.
According to Efrati, Waymo’s service is likely to launch first in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb where Waymo has done extensive testing. Waymo chose the Phoenix area for its favorable weather, its wide, well-maintained streets, and the relative lack of pedestrians. Another important factor was the legal climate. Arizona has some of the nation’s most permissive laws regarding self-driving vehicles.
“Arizona’s oversight group has met just twice in the last year, and found no reason to suggest any new rules or restrictions on autonomous vehicles, so long as they follow traffic laws,” the Arizona Republic reported in June. “The group found no need to suggest legislation to help the deployment.”
According to the Arizona Republic, a 2015 executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey “allows universities to test vehicles with no driver on board so long as a licensed driver has responsibility for the cars and can take control remotely if the vehicle needs assistance.”
Waymo is getting ready to take the same approach. The company has built a real-time command center that allows self-driving cars to “phone home” and consult human operators about the best way to deal with situations it finds confusing. The ability to remotely monitor vehicles and give timely feedback on tricky situations will be essential if Waymo hopes to eliminate the human driver from its cars.
Cars aren’t quite ready for prime time
Yet there are still some kinks to work out. “When Waymo tested in Phoenix earlier this year, drivers sometimes had to take over the wheel to prevent the cars from holding up traffic because it took too long for humans in the command center to answer the cars’ requests for help,” Efrati writes. Avoiding these kinds of problems is going to require Waymo to hire and train a lot of human operators. Managing large numbers of ordinary workers has never been one of Google’s strong suits.
Waymo’s cars have had persistent problems navigating left turns, according to Efrati, especially when there’s no left-hand turn arrow to control oncoming traffic. Waymo cars struggle to navigate cul-de-sacs. Large mall parking lots also pose a challenge, since these private properties might not be well represented in Waymo’s 3-D maps.
Other challenges facing Waymo have little to do with the company’s technology. For example, Waymo was scheduled to deploy 100 Fiat Chrysler minivans in early 2017, with 500 more coming later in the year. However, Efrati reported last month that only 50 of the cars were in use. A variety of “technical issues” have prevented Waymo from using more than half of the initial 100-vehicle order, while the second batch of 500 vehicles has been held up by a “June recall by Chrysler related to a small electronic part in all of its Pacifica vans.”
These are all reasons to doubt whether Waymo will be able to launch a truly driverless taxi service this year as Page would like. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture: these are the kinds of problems you worry about when you are months, rather than years, away from launching a commercial product.
Most of Waymo’s rivals are aiming to release self-driving cars in 2020, 2021, or later. Even if Waymo’s schedule slips a few months and it introduces a self-driving car service in the middle of 2018 instead of late 2017, that will still give the company a multiple-year head start over most of its rivals. And it would confound skeptics who insist that full self-driving technology is still years away.