Waymo Opens Self-Driving Fleet to the Public
Waymo, the self-driving division of Google and the tech giant's parent company, Alphabet Inc., is adding 500 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to its research fleet, while simultaneously opening its vehicles to daily use by the public.
The program, scheduled to begin later this year in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, allows interested riders to sign up online for a chance to become a regular user of Waymo's self-drive vehicles. These currently include Lexus RX 450h SUVs along with the now greatly expanded fleet of Pacifica Hybrids.
Late in 2016, Chrysler and Waymo announced a partnership to outfit 100 Pacifica Hybrids with Waymo's autonomous drive sensors and software. While they aren't the most elegant conveyances — back in December, we said the rooftop sensor array looked like "a blacked-out emergency light sitting atop a hard-shelled ski box" — there remains no doubt about the overall importance of this alliance.
This latest push not only increases the autonomous Pacifica fleet fivefold, it plays into plans to make the self-driving shuttle service available to as wide an audience as possible.
Applications to become self-drive early-adopters are processed online, with a limit of one application per household. However, if your application and unique "transportation needs" (to use Waymo's wording) are accepted, you and your immediate family can use the service free of charge.
"The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan is a versatile vehicle for our early rider program, which will give people access to our self-driving fleet to use every day, at any time," said John Krafcik, CEO for Waymo, in the press release announcing the expanded partnership.
The program encourages regular daily rides, not a simple one-and-done experience. An obvious intended goal is to make people more comfortable with the idea of having a car drive them, free of human intervention. Another benefit is that Waymo's engineering team can monitor how the vehicles operate in day-to-day situations to safely determine if routine drives and errands allow the vehicles to better "learn" their surroundings and driving situations.
Using the sunny city of Phoenix, along with the surrounding towns of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe, also poses advantages to any self-driving test fleet. With rainy weather much less of a factor — and snow as likely as flying pigs — the Phoenix-based Waymo fleet is freer to operate without the hindrances posed by an unpredictable Mother Nature. For now, even the most advanced autonomous drive vehicles struggle when weather conditions obscure road signs or lane markings.
Waymo says that, in its approximately seven years of testing, its fleet has covered 3 million miles of roadways, while computer simulations have logged billions more. That said, all upcoming Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid self-drive minivans will have a Waymo engineer behind the wheel, just in case human intervention is needed after all.