As self-driving cars edge closer to production, manufacturers are expanding the range of scenarios they face during testing. Waymo, formerly known as the Google Self Driving Car Project, is now opening its cars up to the public in Phoenix, Arizona, in an attempt to see how they handle the cut-and-thrust of daily family duties.
At the moment, public self-driving trials generally involve taking people for one short ride. That process is a good way to raise awareness about what autonomous cars can do, but it doesn't shed much light on how the technology works on a day-to-day basis, where repeat usage brings faults into stark focus.
Waymo has been running a small pilot program for the past few months, giving a tiny batch of Phoenix residents access to its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Now, it's being opened up to a much wider group of people, who will be able to call the cars at any time. The cars will be able to go essentially anywhere in the greater Phoenix area, making their coverage area around twice as large as San Francisco.
Riders will provide feedback on their experience, helping the team at Waymo tailor their designs for the rigors of daily life. The trial is free, and applications are open at the moment. Applicants will be accepted based on their commuting habits, but the program will be placing a focus on throwing the cars into as many different situations as possible.
Waymo will be purchasing an additional 500 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to support the 100 already doing the rounds.
The push to slot self-driving cars into the everyday reality of average Arizona families represents another significant step in autonomous driving development. Waymo has covered more than 3 million miles since its inception in 2009, and the benefits of that experience are beginning to show.
According to reports submitted to the Californian DMV earlier this year, Waymo cars covered 635,868 miles (1,023,330 km) last year, and human drivers only needed to intervene 124 times. That's a huge improvement over 2015, where self-driving systems disengaged 341 times in just 424,331 mi (682,895 km) of testing.
Check out one of the families involved in the Early Test Riders program in the video below.