Waymo has launched its robo taxi self-driving car service called Waymo One in Pheonix, Arizona (USA) as of December 2018. This has been highly anticipated as a new form of ride service joins the likes of taxi operators and ride sharing providers to deliver mobility as a service. Waymo is proceeding with caution perhaps due to the many gray areas in self driving technology. Uber was recently involved in a fatal accident caused by one of its self-driving cars during a test earlier in 2018. There are still a lot of things we don’t know since it is just beginning deployment for public use.
The good news is that Waymo has the best track record, recording over 10 million miles of testing without any serious accidents. All this data is solid foundation for Waymo as a provider, as it tries to build trust with the public to use their service. The cars are not fully autonomous yet since there is a safety driver riding with passengers. At the moment not just anyone can ride either, since Waymo is implementing this service with an early rider program. This requires signing up on Waymo’s website to apply for the program. This is how cautious Waymo is in providing this service.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post:
“Self-driving technology is new to many, so we’re proceeding carefully with the comfort and convenience of our riders in mind.”
Why self-driving, are human drivers not that reliable anymore?
The disruption in transportation and mobility with self-driving cars is somewhat similar to when the automobile replaced the horse drawn carriage. The only difference is now you have driverless cars replacing car drivers, much like how car drivers replaced stagecoach drivers. Waymo’s mission in providing self-driving cars as a service has more to do with people and their lifestyle. It is about mobility for everyone, regardless of whether they have a car or not. Removing the hassles of driving is one of the great benefits of using the service. It is an easier way to get from point A to point B without using your own car. You can just relax and let the self-driving car take you to your destination. Another issue it wants to address is public safety. It is open to debate whether self-driving cars are safer than human driven cars, but the data points to greater safety than what some people might think. Most all accidents on the road are caused by human error or negligence. Distracted driving, driving under the influence and even sleep deprivation do cause fatal accidents on a regular basis. Self-driving cars have not been on the road for that long yet, but this is something that self-driving technology can address to minimize them.
Are self-driving cars safe?
That has been the question on everybody’s mind. For those who are not educated in how self-driving cars work, perhaps there should be primers for this conducted by Waymo and other companies that provide self-driving car services i.e. autonomous vehicle operators. Tesla has not really done a good job in explaining this, so it seems since owners seem to think that their car can drive itself. We have seen accidents already as a result of that e.g. Santa Monica freeway, 101 freeway crash in California, etc. If I were to answer this question I would say “Yes, because self-driving cars were designed to be safe.” Waymo has over a decade of research and development with self-driving cars, so this is not like some start-up company that just recently started making them. They have been very keen on safety. That is the truth because it really is first and foremost when it comes to developing these vehicles. What makes them special is that they are programmed to prevent and avoid disaster at all costs. Yet, things can still happen that may not be preventable. The point here is that the reliability and safety features of self-driving cars have a higher probability of success than failure. When you have figures like that, which Waymo can attest, then it is safe. The idea that self-driving cars are dangerous has yet to be concluded. Road tests with strict regulation (use of safety driver, emphasis on proper driving, etc.) is how to slowly deploy them which is how Waymo is proceeding.
There have been fears that self-driving cars are causing fatal accidents on their own. That is not true however, based on many reports. This article shares findings that most self-driving car accidents have been due to human error. You are more likely to get into an accident “selfie-driving” rather than from a “self-driving” car.
Public confidence is the key to the success of emerging technologies, including self-driving cars. It has to reach a point where it is so user friendly and transparent that it is something people do regularly on a day to day basis. The same way people take the bus or train to work must also be the norm for self-driving cars. The people who are afraid to ride self-driving cars are the ones who need to realize that they are not dangerous to ride. I have rode on a self-driving shuttle during the NAB Show in Las Vegas called Hop-On. It may have had an early non-fatal mishap with a truck during its initial run, but it has since been determined to be caused by the driver of the truck. There are things that can be refined, but for the most part it felt safe and at no point did the self-driving shuttle try to make any aggressive moves. It was like riding with a student driver. The goal is to go beyond that and become, in the words of Waymo, “the world’s most experienced driver.”
Overall, not everyone seems pleased with the new service. It has been reported that there have been incidents in Arizona where Waymo’s self-driving cars were attacked. This is just one of many articles to report on these incidents. It seems acceptance will always have hurdles and resistance to changes. This is where Waymo is going to work with its marketing and public image department to portray them as a people friendly and safe service. It’s going to be tough to sell if there is any accident or even slight snafu because that is what opponents and critics are looking for in order to strike at self-driving cars.
What we already know is that initially it is limited to a geo-fenced area within the Pheonix metropolitan area, restricted pick-up and drop-off areas and more expensive to ride than an Uber or Lyft if you take competitive rates into account. Afterall, if you regularly ride Uber they give you special discounts that at this point Waymo probably cannot match. It is still the beginning though, so if this service sees success, then its usefulness will keep it in business. I would like to think that self-driving cars are not going to be useless, because the pros outweigh the cons in many regards.
In order for self-driving cars to be successful, both as a technology and business model, there has to be acceptance. It must reach the point of fully autonomous driving and availability to all. We need to be able to see safety, reliability and affordability come in to play for “critical mass’. The early stages of Waymo One will be scrutinized not just by regulators, but by the public who will find out about how it is doing from the news, word of mouth and even social media. The narrative can only change once we know for sure that self-driving cars like Waymo’s robo taxi are truly safe and reliable.