The rumors are intensifying that the launch of Google-sister Waymo’s robotaxi-service is imminent,
Google/Waymo started the development of autonomous vehicles in 2009 and has driven 9 million miles
in autonomous mode, with the far majority of miles driven in urban environments. Every day Waymo vehicles drive in Mountain View and Chandler and add another 25,000 miles, and that even on weekends.
Here is a video with a compilation of encounters with Waymo and other autonomous vehicles in Silicon Valley.
For almost a year several hundred Chandler residents have been part of Waymo’s Early-Rider-program, where they can use the vehicles in a test operation throughout a portion of Chandler.
In January, Waymo-CEO John Krafcik
talked about the future plans of the program, and since then the activities have intensified. Waymo has ordered 62,000 Fiat-Chrysler Pacifica minivans
and 20,000 Jaguar iPace
, which are being equipped with Waymo-technology. At that time Krafcik announced that starting autumn this year those cars will be rolled out over several years. To clarify: not for testing purposes, but for operation.
To compare those numbers: in New York City today 13,000 taxis with 40,000 taxi drivers operate, all the across the U.S. around 233,000 taxicab drivers. And now there is Waymo and puts 82,000 robotaxis on the roads.
Meanwhile, California DMV has created a special license type that allows the operation of autonomous vehicles without a safety-driver on board. Even though since the introduction of that license April 1st 2018, none of the three companies that applied (Waymo, GMCruise, Phantom.auto) have received such a license.
Also the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), which is responsible for regulating taxi services, has enhanced regulations for allowing autonomous vehicles, albeit with restrictions. So far no rides to and from the airport are allowed, and no money can be charged for a ride. In May 2019 this may change, when the CPUC board reconvenes again on that topic, where it is expected that those restrictions will be lifted.
The last days and weeks saw a firework of rumors coming in through anonymous and official sources, which go hand in hand with those facts and give a much clearer picture.
Some anonymous sources report about increased recruiting effort by Waymo. Adding hundreds and thousands of autonomous cars to the 600 today require staff. Information like the following are coming out of such recruiting events
- In 2018 the operation in all of Phoenix is scheduled to start. the covered area is 100 square miles (259 square kilometers). For comparison: Stuttgart as 207 km2, Vienna 414 km2)
- In preparation for the start mapping vehicles have finished mapping of entire Phönix. Autonomous cars need high precision maps, including sidewalk curb heights, lanes and positions of signs up to a centimeter of precision.
- In spring San Francisco and Mountain View are expected to be added to the operation area.
- The vehicles are expected to be accessible for the public after an initial phase for participants in the Early-Rider program.
- From a technical perspective we learned that Waymo has finished or is finishing covering other weather conditions beside sunshine. Driving in rain weather apparently is solved. Rain has posed a challenge, as raindrops interfere with sensor signals. Snow is supposed to be finishes this winter, which makes the cars ready for most of the weather conditions.
In an interview with Forbes,
Waymo-CTO Dmitri Dolgov talk about the mass production of Waymo technology. This indicates that Waymo is in the middle of mass producing the required number of LiDARs and other technology components to equip the thousands of coming vehicles.
In addition, Waymo has hired lobbyists in multiple cities, including Miami and Orlando in Florida, to lobby administrators for creating regulations allowing the operation of autonomous vehicles. First operation for Early Riders are expected to start in 2019.
Then first news of a Waymo-app appeared that allow users to order a Waymo. This app also displayed in test modes potential fares
Waymo signed a contract with rental car company Avis for providing maintenance services
for the thousands of Waymos. Another contract
was signed with AutoNation, giving car owners a Waymo as a courtesy car, when their private vehicles are in the shop. And Walmart opened dedicated Waymo-parking spaces
, where Waymo users can pick up their online shopping.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Morgan Stanley
evaluates Waymo at a market cap of 175 billion dollar, and Swiss investment bank UBS expects Waymo in 2030 to own 60 percent of the autonomous car technology market.
Event that some criticism
on the maturity of Waymo-technology surfaced and the hesitant behavior of Waymo cars was mentioned, the crash rates and the observed behavior of Waymo-vehicles tell a different story. They seem to perform exactly they way we want autonomous vehicles to drive and behave. With low crash rates and the vast majority of collisions caused by the human driven cars, the cars are not simply driving hesitant, but safe and courteous in regards to other traffic participants.
All signs point to a possible start of Waymo’s expanded operations within a few days or weeks, where the robotaxi service moves from test operation to a full commercial operation. This service could have tens of thousands of cars operating in areas combining several hundred square miles until end of next year.
Which means that we will see every day on average another 100 cars being added to the Waymo fleet. With operation hours of up to 10 per vehicle per day, the driving will be an addition 300 miles per day per car. Imagine 10,000 Waymos operating, which means we see 3 million miles every day. Within three days those 10,000 cars drive 9 million miles, the same amount that Waymo has collected in 9 years from 2009 to today.
Such an amount of vehicles will not only become exponentially better (how that works is explained here
), but will expose a large number of people to an autonomous driving experience. This will upend the transport system in the covered areas. Usage and sales of private cars will decline, human operated taxis will disappear, and public transport will see a decrease of ridership. That will have massive ramifications of car makers who do not have self-driving technology of Waymo-quality.
At the same time experts and developers hope that there will be up to 90 percent less crashes and traffic victims. Traffic will decrease, parking spaces will be freed up, and the costs of mobility may decrease by 90 percent.
What seems for most of us like far away science fiction, will be here in a few days and weeks, and we can observe that live.
This article has also been published in German.