Waymo, Google's self-driving car affiliate, is testing self-driving vehicles without safety drivers in Arizona and plans to offer driverless rides to the public in the next few months.
During a keynote speech at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Waymo CEO John Krafcik showed a video of the company's test vehicles driving on Arizona roads without human supervision. He said the vehicles are able to operate within the Phoenix area without requiring predetermined routes or other outside help.
"This wasn't just a one-time ride or a demo," Krafcik said. "What you're seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology."
Other manufacturers have been running self-driving test vehicles on public roads in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and other states, but those all have human operators behind the wheel. Waymo said it has been running driverless vehicles in Arizona, where law does not require self-driving vehicles to be supervised by a safety driver, since mid-October.
Waymo demonstrated its driverless vehicles to media and analysts in October, operating seven-minute rides in its private testing center in Atwater, Calif. The company also unveiled its user interface technology, which includes a row of buttons for passengers to start their ride, pull over and call for help, and two screens displaying the car's route, actions and 360-degree vision.
For the past eight months, Waymo has been operating a self-driving ride-hailing pilot for select residents in Chandler, Ariz. Krafcik said the company plans to expand the range of the driverless vehicles to an area of 600 square miles -- roughly the size of greater London -- and allow members of its test pilot to ride without safety drivers in the next few months.
"Since the beginning of this year, our early riders have been using our fleet -- with a test driver at the wheel -- to go to work, school, soccer practice and more," he said "Soon, they'll be able to make these trips in a fully self-driving car, with Waymo as their chauffeur."
When Waymo was spun out from Google in December, Krafcik said the new company was exploring a variety of business plans to commercialize its self-driving technology, including ride hailing, trucking and logistics, public transportation partnerships and licensing to automakers for private vehicles.
During his speech, Krafcik said the company had landed on ride hailing as the initial service to introduce its automated driving platform to the public.
"Because we see so much potential in shared mobility, the first way people will get to experience Waymo's fully self-driving technology will be as a driverless service," Krafcik said.
In the past year, Waymo has inked partnership agreements with Lyft, Avis and AutoNation, which could bolster its efforts to deploy, manage and maintain a growing vehicle fleet network. The company operates 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans retrofitted with its self-driving technology via a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, with 500 more vehicles in the works.
"Having more people experience fully self-driving vehicles early is valuable," Krafcik said. "It will let us learn about how people want to use this technology -- and those insights will inform our future work."