Alphabet's autonomous tech company Waymo is taking the next big step in its self-driving vehicle tests: removing the driver. The industry risks a potential backlash against the technology if Waymo's autonomous vehicles are at fault in a high-profile crash.
Waymo did not specify how many cars will be on the roads for the beta program, but described it as a "fleet".
At first, those passengers will be accompanied in the back seat by a Waymo employee, but eventually they will travel alone, although they will be able to hit a button to stop the vehicle.
Waymo also announced exactly how the new fully self-driving cars will be deployed: in a new public-facing service program, which sounds a lot like autonomous ride-hailing in the save vein as Uber or Lyft.
"To have a vehicle on public roads without a person at the wheel, we've built some unique safety features into this minivan". Waymo said it plans to let passengers sit in the back in coming months, possibly without an employee in the vehicle. But experts have said the public should not expect this problem to be solved quickly.
Waymo shared some footage of the fully self-driving Pacificas out on the roads, demonstrating how the vehicles can handle different driving responsibilities like stopping for pedestrians and stoplights, signaling to turn, and more.
Waymo's vehicles will now be able to take people who signed up to be early testers of the service anywhere in the greater Phoenix area, which the company says will soon comprise an area larger than that of Greater London. People could claim the cars for a day, a week "or even longer", he said. "One for napping; a personal dining room; a mobile office; or a vehicle just for when moving into your new place", he said. The company recently released a huge safety report that claimed its cars had driven 3.5 million miles over public roads and 2.5 billion in simulation.
During a demonstration last week, Waymo gave rides to reporters on a closed course that included citylike scenarios.
And because Waymo is operating its vehicles in Arizona, where the laws regulating autonomous tests are practically non-existent, a lot of the reporting on the progress of these vehicles will be incredibly one-sided.
According to The Verge, a Waymo employee will still be in the vehicle, but likely sitting behind the driver's seat instead of in it.
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