Well, Waymo did it. It launched a self-driving taxi service before the end of 2018. This is, on the surface, exactly what it said it would do, and it didn’t even come down to the wire — it’s only Dec. 5.
But a closer examination shows this isn’t what Waymo once promised eager would-be riders.
Basically, Waymo slapped a “launch” label to its already-existing early rider self-driving car service, started charging its select group of about 400 preexisting customers for rides, and is letting them talk about the experience and even bring a guest along for a ride.
A slick name for the service and a video showing all you can do with a computer in the driver’s seat gloss over an inconvenient detail: From a service standpoint, this is almost exactly what it was offering before. In its “how it works” post about the One app, Waymo writes it expects “to gradually roll out so even more people can ride with us.”
So instead of a truly public launch it’s only the invited early riders who get to ride the before-the-end-of-the-year service. And it’s only in the Phoenix area including the cities of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. And within those towns, only within geofenced areas.
The early riders were warned months ago that the service they were using for free would one day charge for schlepping them around town, and that day has come. Fair enough, but just because Waymo’s now accepting credit cards doesn’t mean this isn’t much more than a limited pilot.
Credit where it’s due: Waymo is the only company to have applied for a truly driverless testing permit in California and is also testing driverless rides in Arizona. It built its own Uber- or Lyft-like ride-hailing app, complete with a payment system. It’s tested more than 10 million real road miles in its vehicles. But these milestones don’t mean much for Wednesday’s announcement.
The list of “howevers” is just as long, though. Safety drivers are still in the cars and remote operators will be monitoring rides as well. The true “public” doesn’t have access to the service. And the first-ever Waymo app isn’t even available in the App Store or Google Play for anyone but Google’s handpicked customers.
At best, Waymo took an incremental step towards a self-driving service. At worst, the Google-created company is duping us all. Nothing substantive has changed compared to what the company has been doing since April 2017, geographically and demographically. It’s still the same Phoenix suburbs with its wide, sunny streets and same people who are used to and know what to expect from a Waymo ride. Regardless of how Waymo is framing this, those unflattering reports from The Information and Bloomberg that questioned whether a full launch would happen before 2019 now look validated.
Bottom line: Waymo still isn’t ready for prime time. The cars can be slow to turn, hesitant in certain situations, and overly cautious. Local Arizona reporters who recently followed Waymo minivans for three days found the cars use “extreme caution in maneuvers” and often frustrate other drivers on the road. It’s certainly impressive what Waymo has achieved, but those achievements may be incompatible with today’s roads, and least in some situations.
Because of these shortcomings, Waymo wants to keep the less-than-perfect rides within the early rider crew. These are the people who know that the Waymo car is bad at changing lanes or can’t always handle the chaos of a busy parking lot.
Even watching a promo video for the new Waymo One service, the wording (“this is where we’re going”) and visuals carefully focus on what the service will eventually become: driverless, accessible, and as easy to use as any other ride-hailing app.
Until then, however, Waymo One is just a new label for the same driverless promises, most of which are still a ways down the road.