Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, said Thursday that it’s offering its fully driverless robo-taxis to all customers of its ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona. Previously, the company only afforded its fleet of unmanned cars to a select few hundred people as part of its early rider program beginning in 2017.
To start out, the company’s only rolling out these services to existing users on its ride-hailing app, Waymo One, though they’re free to bring family and friends along for the ride, CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post. Beginning Thursday, any Waymo One customer can hail a driverless minivan from the company’s fleet of more than 300 vehicles. In the coming weeks, it plans to invite more participants to sign up through the app (which has a waitlist that the company uses to vet new riders). The company’s self-driving services operate in an approximately 100-square-mile area southeast of Phoenix that includes the towns of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe, but its fully driverless cars are limited to a service area roughly half that size.
Until now, the only riders allowed in Waymo’s driverless vehicles were members of its early riders program after they signed a nondisclosure agreement barring them from speaking publically about their experience. According to Krafcik, 5-10% of Waymo’s rides were fully driverless. In December, the company reported having roughly 1,500 monthly active users on its Waymo One app.
“In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless,” Krafcik said Thursday, though he didn’t specify a timeline. “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.”
In March, Waymo temporarily suspended its self-driving services in the Phoenix area because of the spread of covid-19, but has since resumed operations with additional safety precautions. Krafcik added that as part of its response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the company plans to finish adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row of seats and the passenger cabin later this year as a prerequisite before it begins reintroducing its safety drivers (trained contractors who, as their title suggests, are there in case the autonomous vehicle encounters a situation it can’t handle.) Waymo also plans on “re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area,” he said.