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Self-driving companies to consumers: Hop in

Waymo and others hope rides will reassure the public

Test rides in the cars of the future are becoming more available to the public, and are no longer limited to engineers, executives and journalists.

Last week, Waymo, Google's autonomous vehicle arm, said it would give Arizona residents access to its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Lexus RX 450h crossovers for daily use. With the introduction of the program, Waymo joins Uber, Tesla Inc. and Volvo Cars in opening its technology to a public that has been slow to embrace self-driving vehicles.

Waymo's Arizona program lets interested residents apply via its website to become "early riders." It is limited to residents of specific areas of Phoenix and applicants must be at least 18 years old. If accepted, applicants and their family members can use Waymo vehicles -- which are supervised by trained drivers -- for daily transportation.

"We want as many people as possible to experience our technology." John Krafcik, Waymo CEO

"We want as many people as possible to experience our technology," wrote Waymo CEO John Krafcik in a blog introducing the program. 

Waymo isn't the only company that wants to get the public into its cars. Uber has been offering supervised rides in its self-driving taxis to Pittsburgh and Arizona residents -- though the program was briefly suspended after one of the vehicles crashed in March, in Tempe, Ariz. 

Tesla, rather than relying on test vehicles, has been gathering data from customer-owned vehicles equipped with its self-driving hardware and rolling out gradual software updates that increase the vehicle's semiautonomous abilities, enabling customers to contribute to the development of the technology and try it themselves once it's validated. And, by year end, Volvo will begin its Drive Me project, giving 100 customers in Gothenburg, Sweden, XC90 crossovers equipped with its self-driving technology to try on their own. 

This early access addresses one of the potential obstacles facing self-driving vehicles: consumer acceptance. A study by J.D. Power and Associates released in April showed that more consumers -- across all generations -- don't trust autonomous vehicles, compared with results from last year. Tesla owners, however, were twice as likely to trust the technology. 

"That's what's important: It's the people. It's our customers," said Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Car USA, in an April interview. "How do they use autonomous drive? When do they feel comfortable? When do they feel uncomfortable? That's what we'll learn out of the Drive Me project." 

While letting consumers into autonomous vehicles may help with public perception, it could pose new liability questions for manufacturers. Most states have no regulations governing autonomous vehicles, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is formulating a federal policy. 

In 2015, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order directing state agencies to "undertake any necessary steps" to facilitate autonomous vehicle tests in the state. The only requirements for manufacturers were the need for a licensed driver to supervise the vehicle and proof of financial responsibility. 

Though no passengers were in the car at the time of Uber's crash in Tempe and no one was harmed, the company paused the program for three days to investigate the cause. Local police did not find Uber at fault in the collision. 

However, in cases in which the autonomous vehicle is at fault, the manufacturer is likely to shoulder the responsibility, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who specializes in self-driving vehicles. 

Walker Smith said: "A person injured by a test vehicle associated with a major developer like Waymo is probably better off than a person injured by an ordinary vehicle, because these developers will have deeper pockets and broader reputational interests than an ordinary driver."

You can reach Katie Burke at kburke@crain.com -- Follow Katie on Twitter: @KatieGBurke

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