Robot cars are now officially a real business. Waymo on Wednesday launched a commercial robot ride-hailing service in Arizona called Waymo One.
Like Uber or Lyft, customers will summon a ride with a smartphone app. But in this case, the car will be driving itself.
"This is a game changer. It's historical in nature," said Grayson Brulte, who heads driverless car consulting firm Brulte & Co.
Only "a few hundred customers" will have access to the app and participate in the early stages, according to Waymo, which is an arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc. Although the cars will drive themselves, a Waymo engineer will sit behind the wheel in case anything goes wrong. Waymo did not say when the cars will start arriving without a human minder or when the program will be expanded.
Waymo's cars, Chrysler Pacifica minivans bristling with autonomous driving technology, are available in several eastern and southeastern Phoenix suburbs, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. The fares are similar to those charged by Uber and Lyft.
Waymo has ferried Phoenix-area passengers in robot cars since April 2017 in what the company calls its Early Rider program. Unlike Early Rider -- which Waymo will continue -- Waymo One customers won't be required to sign nondisclosure agreements and won't be expected to continually provide feedback about their experience.
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Waymo One represents the beginnings of a business that could be worth a lot of money. How much, no one yet knows: Wall Street estimates of Waymo's market value, should it be spun off, range from $50 billion to $175 billion.
Waymo began driverless-car development in 2009. Although dozens of companies, from small start-ups to major motor vehicle manufacturers, are developing driverless systems, Waymo is considered the emerging industry's leader -- in large part because of Google's expertise in mapping and machine learning combined with the rich ample investment dollars churned out by Google's search advertising money machine.
There appears to be far more demand for the service than Waymo is able or willing to provide at present. The Early Rider program attracted 20,000 applicants, the company said, but only about 400 were chosen.
A big reason for the slo-mo nature of commercial rollout, according to Waymo, is safety.