Waymo announced on Thursday that it was ordering 62,000 Pacifica minivans from Fiat Chrysler. It’s the latest sign that Alphabet’s self-driving car company is operating on a different level from the rest of the industry.
The last few months have had a lot of bad news for fans of self-driving cars.
In March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, forcing Uber to suspend its testing program indefinitely. In May, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report finding big problems with Uber’s software.
The same month, a Tesla customer died in a crash in Mountain View, California, while Tesla’s driver-assistance program, Autopilot, was engaged. Tesla is working to upgrade Autopilot to a fully self-driving system, but the leader of that effort, Jim Keller, left the team in April. He was the third Autopilot boss to leave Tesla in the last 18 months.
These and other negative headlines have contributed to a darkening public mood on self-driving cars. A poll released in May found that the proportion of Americans who would be afraid to ride in a self-driving car had risen from 63 percent in late 2017 to 73 percent.
But if the self-driving industry is in crisis, nobody told Waymo. Over the last 18 months, the company has been methodically laying groundwork to launch a commercial driverless car service.
Uber, Nvidia, and Toyota all suspended self-driving car testing in the wake of the March Uber crash—but not Waymo. Waymo continued logging miles in Arizona and elsewhere. And days after the crash, the company announced a deal with Jaguar Land Rover to build 20,000 fully self-driving I-PACE cars.
Then on Thursday, Waymo announced a massive deal for 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans—by far the biggest deal for self-driving vehicles so far. Waymo wouldn’t be making deals this big unless the company was very confident that its technology was on track for commercial use within the next year or two.
When people use stories about Tesla, Uber, or Ford to argue that self-driving cars are still many years away, they ignore the fact that Google—now Waymo—has been working on this problem way longer than anyone else. In October 2015, Google was already confident enough in its technology to let a blind man take an unaccompanied test drive on Austin streets. Almost three years later, it’s not clear if anyone else has managed to build technology as sophisticated as Waymo had three years ago.
So it might be true that the rest of the industry is failing to live up to early self-driving car hype. But Waymo is in a class by itself.
Waymo has been relentlessly preparing for a commercial service
One sign of how good Waymo’s technology is—or at least how good the company’s leadership believes it is—is how much effort Waymo has devoted to things other than technology development. Good self-driving technology is essential, but a lot of other stuff is required to actually deliver a taxi service to paying customers.
Waymo’s shift from technology development to commercialization began in earnest in April 2017, when Waymo announced its early rider program, giving handpicked families a chance to take rides in Waymo’s prototype Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The move allowed Waymo to start thinking about customer-facing issues, like the user interface for self-driving cars and how the car’s driving style affects passenger comfort.
Then in June, Waymo signed a deal with Avis to manage its self-driving vehicle fleet in the Phoenix area. In October, Waymo announced a public education partnership with a number of Phoenix-area non-profits designed to highlight the benefits of self-driving cars for blind people and the elderly, as well as the potential to save lives by eliminating drunk driving and other driver errors.
Meanwhile, for months, Waymo has been staffing up its operations center in Chandler, Arizona, (the center for its forthcoming Phoenix-area taxi service) as well as its Google Mountain View headquarters. Waymo currently has open positions for both fleet dispatchers—who handle calls from Waymo’s safety drivers—as well as driverless fleet dispatchers, who focus on providing a “flawless rider experience.”
Last month, IEEE Spectrum obtained a Waymo filing with California regulators that gives more details about Waymo’s customer support infrastructure:
Instead, Waymo has two teams that will monitor each car while it’s in service. Fleet Response Specialists possess valid driver’s licenses and are responsible for monitoring the status of all Waymo vehicles in real-time using a virtual tool. A separate Rider Support team provides customer support and is available to communicate with passengers at any point. Waymo specified that it had trained 70 Fleet Response Specialists and 23 Rider Support team members—suggesting that when a service does roll out, it will be on quite a significant scale.
So Waymo’s recently announced car deals—20,000 cars from Jaguar Land Rover, another 62,000 from Fiat Chrysler—are just the latest sign that Waymo is assembling all the pieces it will need for a full-scale commercial taxi service in the Phoenix area and likely other places not long after that.
It would be foolish for Waymo to invest so heavily in all this infrastructure if its technology were still years away from being ready for commercial deployment. Those 23 rider support workers need customers to talk to. And, of course, Waymo needs to get those 82,000 Jaguar and Chrysler vehicles on the road to avoid losing millions of dollars on the investment.
Throughout all this, Waymo has been testing its vehicles at a faster and faster pace. It took Waymo six months to go from 3 million testing miles in May 2017 to 4 million miles in November. Then it took around three months to reach 5 million miles in February, and less than three months to reach 6 million in early May.
For most of 2017, Waymo said that its commercial service would be coming “soon” without a specific launch date. Rumors suggested that a service could launch as soon as last fall, which turned out not to be quite correct. In recent months, Waymo has repeatedly said that a commercial service would be coming some time in 2018.