Waymo sends its fully self-driving cars to pick up some of the trickiest types of passengers you can muster: airport rides. The company announced that customers flying in and out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport can now hail one of the company’s “riders-only” vehicles, a sign that the Alphabet company is willing to take on more risk to bolster the case for a fully autonomous taxi service.
Waymo is also expanding the size of its service area in both Phoenix and San Francisco to get the message across that despite all the recent gloomy headlines about the future of autonomous vehicles, its robotaxi business is still going strong.
“No waiting list, no NDAs, no hours restriction, 24/7 service,” said Waymo product chief Saswat Panigrahi in a briefing with reporters. (Panigrahi’s references to hourly restrictions are a subtle swipe at rival robotaxi service Cruise, which is only allowed to operate its fully self-driving cars in San Francisco at night.)
“No waiting list, no NDAs, no hours restriction, 24/7 service”
Of course, Waymo is not without its own limitations. The company is still waiting for the final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission before it can begin charging for rides in its driver-only vehicles in San Francisco. As such, Waymo only offers unpaid rides to certain members of the public, as well as employees and their guests, in its self-driving vehicles.
Aside from that, the time it takes Waymo to move from testing to commercial operation is decreasing, Panigrahi said. For example, it took three years to go from limited testing to rider-only travel in Chandler, Arizona, while it took about a year in San Francisco and six months in downtown Phoenix. This bodes well for the company’s efforts to expand its business beyond just the two cities in which it operates, Panigrahi argued.
“If you look at our specific milestones, it’s accelerating,” he added.
Waymo’s service area in downtown Phoenix has “more than doubled” to 41.2 square miles, while the company’s fully autonomous vehicles cover a 46.5 square mile area in San Francisco. Customers of the Waymo One ridehail service can call one of the company’s vehicles to travel within a 36-square-mile area of the city. Waymo provided maps of its service areas in each city.
But operating a robotaxi service will remain difficult as long as there are restrictions on where the vehicles can drive. Human-powered services like Uber and Lyft have no such restrictions. And customers can be fickle and quickly switch to another service that promises shorter wait times and fewer restrictions on where they can travel.
Panigrahi said the company is prepared to take on these myriad challenges, especially as it moves into increasingly competitive spaces, such as the Phoenix airport. “There may be spikes,” he said. “We have some preliminary plans. There are certainly assets that we can exploit much more quickly if demand exceeds supply originally planned.”