As of now, travelers who arrive at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona can take an unorthodox way downtown. Waymo, a self-driving car company, has now launched a fleet of fully autonomous, driverless cars that can pick up passengers and take them to their destinations. The move is particularly significant because navigating a crowded airport environment is not an easy feat for a self-driving car, and it shows that robo-taxis may already be capable of stepping into the real world.
Driverless cars are here
Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the company behind Google) has been accelerating its public rollout this year. In May, the company launched a tester program for residents in downtown Phoenix that seemed to have received good feedback, prompting the company to expand the program to parts of Washington and Los Angeles.
But the airport service was a bit unexpected given how fast approval was received. It took 3 years to get from testing rides to actual driverless rides in Chandler, Arizona — and one year in San Francisco. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, this happened in less than 6 months.
“No waitlist, no NDAs, no hours restriction, 24/7 service,” said Waymo product chief Saswat Panigrahi in a briefing with reporters.
“Our progress in two of the most popular ride-hailing cities in the country is accelerating,” Panigrahi noted in a press release. “As we add more neighborhoods and vehicles to our service in San Francisco and Phoenix, we’re excited to bring the safety and mobility benefits of round-the-clock autonomy to more people in more places.”
In addition, Waymo will also double its coverage area. Waymo is able to drive fully autonomously across all of San Francisco, 24/7. Reportedly, there’s already a big waitlist for clients applying to use Waymo (the service is open to “select members of the public” who have to apply to use it), and the service in Phoenix ha more than doubled, to 41.2 square miles
The new service is the world’s only fully autonomous airport robo-taxi service, although, in China, some robo-taxi services are already available to the public in large cities.
No doubt, we’re on the precipice of a revolution in driverless cars. After being touted for so long as an up-and-coming technology, they seem to be finally ready to be deployed, although many challenges still remain — and there’s still no large-scale, transparent data, on how safe and efficient the technology actually is. This is why the airport service could be very impactful, as it could show whether driverless cars are able to manage a tough environment like an airport.
Meanwhile, Waymo has applied for the final permit required to operate its autonomous taxis in the state of California. It may not be long before we see driverless cars taking off. Not literally though, that will probably take a bit more time.