Waymo’s self-driving taxi service expands to more riders

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Waymo is training its self-driving algorithms from home with simulations.

Taxis and rideshare trips aren’t quite the same these days. The COVID-19 pandemic has made people wary about hopping into a stranger’s car to take a ride. Waymo wants to solve that problem with its self-driving robotaxi model.

The company announced on Thursday that it is expanding its autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona. Anyone in the area with the Waymo One app will now be able to use the service. It was previously only available to a small group of test participants.

The move is a major milestone for the self-driving car world and perhaps an even bigger step for the ride-hailing industry.

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Look, No Hands

There are plenty of people who want to try out Waymo’s futuristic rideshare service for themselves. As such, the Alphabet subsidiary has to limit the number of new riders to a level it can keep up with.

It has strictly controlled which users are able to ride in its autonomous vehicles. Starting now, however, anyone who has the Waymo One app can request a ride. It’s worth noting that the Waymo One app is still using a waitlist so the company can screen new riders on the platform.

Those who are lucky enough to have access to the app will now be able to ride in any of Waymo’s 300-plus autonomous minivans. Although Waymo operates in a 100-square-mile area that covers Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert, and Tempe, Arizona, its autonomous vehicles only cover about half of it.

Up until now, complications like needing riders to sign a non-disclosure agreement limited Waymo to making just five to ten percent of its rides driverless. That should change quickly in the coming days.

In a company blog post CEO John Krafcik said, “In the near term, 100 percent of our rides will be fully driverless. We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patients as we ramp up availability to serve demand.”

Krafcik didn’t provide a specific timeline for when that milestone will be reached.

Long Time Coming

Rolling out a self-driving fleet of taxis hasn’t been easy for Waymo. The firm has had to overcome plenty of obstacles and regulatory hurdles to reach this point.

Most recently, it was forced to suspend its self-driving operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t stop Waymo from developing its autonomous platform, however. The company turned to AI-powered simulators to keep its cars running on virtual roads. It reported that its self-driving system was able to gain 100 years of driving experience every single day by using the approach.

The service later resumed after its March shutdown thanks to new safety precautions. For instance, riders will find barriers between passengers and safety drivers.

In the days to come, Waymo will be “re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area.”

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