This was a big week for autonomous-vehicle technology—and a sign that self-driving vehicles could be coming much faster than anyone ever imagined. Even a famous car guy and former GM exec proclaimed on Tuesday that "it is absolutely inevitable" that "human-driven vehicles are on their way out."
First, Waymo announced that the company's autonomous minivans would begin navigating Phoenix-area roads without a human driver behind the wheel.
In April, Waymo started providing rides to people in self-driving Chrysler Pacificas as part of the company's "early rider program," albeit with a Waymo employee behind the wheel. On Tuesday, Waymo CEO John Krafcik revealed that as part of the next phase of testing the company's self-driving technology, the minivans will operate without anyone behind the wheel and with passengers onboard.
The completely autonomous minivans will at first only transport Waymo employees. Over the next few months, participants in Waymo's early-rider program will be invited to ride in the back of the fully self-driving vehicles.
A small portion of Waymo's autonomous minivan fleet will initially operate in a limited area of Phoenix. Waymo plans to increase the coverage area to the size of "greater London" and will add more vehicles, the company said in statement.
"Fully self-driving cars are here," Krafcik said. "What you're seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo."
Less Ambitious but No Less Significant
The next big thing in driverlessness this week: an autonomous shuttle began operating on public roads in Las Vegas—and was promptly hit by a human-driven big rig.
The Vegas shuttle is less ambitious than what Waymo did, but no less significant. On Wednesday the 11-passenger shuttle began offering free rides along a half-mile loop in downtown Las Vegas.
The autonomous and electric shuttle used is the Navya Arma. It's already operating in several European cities. This one was a joint project by the City of Las Vegas, AAA, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and Keolis North America, which operates mass transit in Vegas. The partners even brought out Nascar star Danica Patrick and Las Vegas magicians Penn and Teller as part of a press launch.
Unfortunately, the same day that the autonomous shuttle launched it was involved in an accident, when the driver of a big-rig backed into it, creating minor dents in the shuttle's front plastic panels. While the internet erupted with reports of an accident involving the self-driving shuttle, my fellow Portland-area auto scribe Jeff Zurschmeide happened to be on the shuttle and wrote an article about what a "meh" moment it was.
While operating autonomous vehicles in sunny Las Vegas and Phoenix isn't the same as putting them on the snowy streets of New York or Detroit in winter, both events move the needle in public acceptance of self-driving technology.
"With Waymo in the driver's seat," Krafcik said, "we can reimagine many different types of transportation, from ride-hailing and logistics, to public transport and personal vehicles, too. We've been exploring each of these areas, with a focus on shared mobility," he added, for the first time giving a glimpse of Google's endgame for self-driving tech.
"By giving people access to a fleet of vehicles rather than starting with a personal ownership model," Krafcik added, "more people will be able to experience this technology, sooner." I believe it will also bring us closer, as former GM vice chairman of product development Bob Lutz said in an Automotive News column this week, "the end of the automotive era" as we know it.
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