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Waymo opens its fully driverless robotaxi service to more riders

Waymo is opening up its fully driverless robotaxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, to more people as the driverless-car company continues to edge toward the wide-scale launch of autonomous ridesharing services.

Born out of the Google self-driving program that launched in 2009, Alphabet-owned Waymo has been testing its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan and other vehicles in several states, with a 100-square-mile area in Phoenix seeing the most activity for testing and exploratory ridesharing services, the first of which launched at the end of 2018.

Up to now, the robotaxi service in Phoenix has only been available to select riders via the company’s Waymo One program. While most Waymo vehicles have a safety driver behind the wheel, a smaller set of riders have been able to take trips in vehicles with nobody behind the wheel — known as “fully driverless” — with such rides forming around 10% of all of its up-to-2,000-a-week driverless ridesharing trip.

This week, however, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said the company is opening up its fully driverless service to all Waymo One riders, paving the way for a dramatic uptick in the number of Waymo rides that have no safety driver on board.

Waymo One riders will be able to start taking friends and family on their trips, too. The company also plans to let more members of the public sign up for the service via its smartphone app, with both moves serving to bring the driverless experience to even more people.

“We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand,” Krafcik wrote in a blog post announcing the expansion.

Without offering specific numbers, the CEO said Waymo is also planning to add more ridsesharing vehicles to its fleet later this year, though, in a bid to allay fears over coronavirus transmission, a physical barrier will be placed between the front and back seats in vehicles where a safety driver is present.

Krafcik added that since trials of its ridesharing service started almost two years ago, it’s been “gathering key learnings” from riders on how to optimize its driverless service experience.

Regulatory hurdles mean that before personal ownership of self-driving cars becomes a thing, we’re more likely to see automakers launching ridesharing services using autonomous cars under strict guidelines and in specific areas, with GM Cruise and Ford, among others, already competing with Waymo to bring such services to the masses.

However, the results of a survey conducted by the American Automobile Association earlier this year suggested there is still much work to be done to educate the public about the technology’s benefits and safety features.

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Trevor Mogg
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