There are numerous driverless car trials taking place around the world, but these invariably involve a human at the wheel ready to take control in case of emergency. Waymo (formerly known as the Google self-driving car project) is moving into the next phase of testing, setting its driverless cars free on the roads of Phoenix in a first-of-its-kind public trial.
It was almost one year ago that the Google's self-driving car project was spun off into its own company Waymo, under the umbrella of parent company Alphabet. But the team has been building its autonomous technologies since well before then, with eight years of development and millions of miles of testing its modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans now under its belt.
Until now, its testing on public roads involved having a person behind the wheel in case the vehicle malfunctions, but Waymo says its experiences have given it grounds to let the cars off the leash. In addition to logging more than 3.5 million autonomous miles (5.6m km), these experiences include testing out unusual scenarios thousands of times on a private test track and using software to simulate millions of autonomous driving miles every day.
The type of driverless operation Waymo is moving into is described as level four autonomy, that is a car that can be driven by a human, but doesn't ever need to be. If these cars encounter something they can't handle, it will ask for human assistance but safely pull over and put the passengers in no danger in the meantime. This is one step short of what is considered level 5 full autonomy, the kind where the front seats might face backwards to turn the car's cabin into a meeting or social space, and the driverless tech can handle any scenario under any driving conditions.
Waymo has been developing its autonomous tech with an eye toward shared mobility, where people hail on-demand self-driving cars rather than own one themselves. Its autonomous vehicles are already driving themselves around a metropolitan area of Phoenix, and it says that over the coming months members of the public will be invited along for the ride. It hopes these first passengers will use its driverless cars to commute to work, school and to get home from a night out.
The video below shows Waymo's driverless cars in action.