Waymo’s fully driverless vehicles are picking up passengers in downtown Phoenix, five months after the Alphabet-owned company expanded its service area to include denser, more complex areas of the city.
Waymo has been testing its vehicles in several suburban towns outside of Phoenix since early 2017, including Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, and Gilbert. It also operates a commercial ride-hailing service called Waymo One using a mix of vehicles with and without safety drivers. The company expanded its service area to include downtown Phoenix earlier this year.
Last year, the company launched its Trusted Tester program, which is basically a rebranding of the early rider program it ran in suburban Phoenix. Customers interested in using Waymo’s robotaxis join a wait list and, once approved, sign nondisclosure agreements to get access to the company’s early technology.
Those individuals are now able to ride in Waymo’s fully driverless vehicles in downtown Phoenix. One of the first riders to experience these “rider only” vehicles was Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who said in a video produced by Waymo that she hopes the service will make Phoenix a “more inclusive city.”
Eventually, the service will grow to include regular customers who are free to speak publicly (and post on social media) about their experiences using Waymo’s autonomous vehicles — just as they do in the suburban towns outside of Phoenix. That can result in some embarrassing headlines, such as when a driverless Waymo van got stuck at an intersection in Chandler, prompting the company to send a roadside assistance team to come extract it.
Waymo is also nearing the launch of a driverless ridehail service in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, though the company has yet to receive final approval to charge riders for those trips. Here’s a list of the company’s current deployments, as per Waymo:
- Downtown Phoenix: Now offering paid rider-only trips to Waymo employees and Trusted Testers.
- Phoenix Sky Harbor: Currently offering trips from downtown Phoenix to the airport for Waymo employees, with an autonomous specialist in the driver’s seat.
- San Francisco: Currently testing rider-only trips to Waymo employees and paid trips to Trusted Testers with an autonomous specialist in the driver’s seat.
- Phoenix East Valley: Currently offering rider-only trips to members of the public.
Waymo emphasizes that it’s the only company offering public trips in fully driverless mode in multiple different cities — with “multiple different cities” being the operative phrase. Cruise, a rival AV company backed by General Motors, is doing paid driverless rides in Downtown San Francisco, albeit only at night.
The expansion of Waymo’s driverless service to Phoenix signals the company’s growing sense of confidence that its vehicles can operate safely and efficiently in more dense, urban environments. Cruise likes to point out that it’s singularly focused on dense cities like San Francisco to contrast Waymo’s approach of starting out in dry, flat, sunny, and less dense environments like Chandler. Going forward, those criticisms are likely to carry less weight.