“Fully self-driving cars are here”: Waymo becomes first company to remove human drivers, announces driverless Uber rival

In a landmark moment for self-driving cars, Google’s driverless car company Waymo has announced that it has begun testing the car without a human behind the wheel on public roads.

The move, which was announced by John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, today at Web Summit, makes Waymo the first company to do so.

“We have some exciting news to share with the world right here at Web Summit,” he said. “Right now we’re going to show you a video of Waymo’s fully self-driving cars on public roads, test driving without anyone in the driver’s seat.

“Fully self-driving cars are here. It’s not happening in 2020, it’s happening today.”

The announcement was accompanied by the unveiling of the planned Waymo Driverless Service, an Uber rival that will see a fleet of Waymo driverless vehicles operating, entirely without human involvement, as a taxi service across the world at an unspecified time in the future.

Discussing the video embedded above, Krafcik stressed that the vehicles we’re operating completely autonomously, meaning Waymo has achieved the holy grail of true level 5 self-driving cars.

“As you can see, there’s no one in the front seats,” he said. “Waymo team members chose three separate destinations, pressed the start button in the car and the vehicle did all the rest, choosing what route to take, when to turn, when to yield and everything in between. That’s full, true autonomy.”

In addition, he was keen to stress that such trials are now going to be commonplace in Phoenix, Arizona, where the company is testing its vehicles.

“This wasn’t just a one-time ride or just a demo, what you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo, and for the history of this technology,” said Krafcik. “We’re test-driving these fully self-driving vehicles in a part of the Phoenix metro area in Arizona. Over time we’ll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, an area much larger than Greater London, and our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the US and around the world.”

It won’t just be Waymo employees that get to experience the vehicles, either.

“In the next few months members of the public will get to experience these fully self-driving rides too,” he said. “The first passengers will be people who are part of our early rider program, which is a public trial already underway in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Since the beginning of this year our early riders have been using our fleet with a test driver at the wheel to go to work, school, soccer practice and more. Soon they’ll be able to make these trips in a fully self-driving car with Waymo as their chauffer.”

Krafcik at Web Summit, with one of the Waymo driverless fleet. Image courtesy of Web Summit

As part of his talk at Web Summit, Krafcik also unveiled the company’s plans for the Waymo Driverless Service, an autonomous alternative to Uber that currently has no fixed timeline, but will eventually be rolled out around the world.

“We’re now working on making this commercial service available to the public,” he said. “People get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, run errands, whatever they like.

“Getting access will be easy as using an app: you just tap a button and Waymo will come to get you, and take you where you want to go. The vehicles will be fully self-driving, so you have your own personal space where you just sit back and relax.”

Driverless cars are just four years away from UK road use, but Brits still have significant concerns

Driverless cars are set to roll out on UK roads by 2021, with plans in motion to change UK insurance in response.

However, despite this many British people remain concerned about their use, with just below half – 46% – saying that they wouldn’t feel comfortable to be a passenger in a self-driving vehicle, according to the results of a survey by OpenText.

The survey, which asked 2,000 UK consumers for their views on the emerging technology, found that despite this, the majority expected driverless cars to be very widespread in the near future. 66% of those surveyed said they expected there to be more autonomous vehicles than conventional cars on UK roads within 15 years.

Automakers such as Mercedes are banking heavily on driverless cars. Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Despite the reluctance to get in a driverless vehicle, many Brits feel that they will make roads safer.

42% said that they thought such vehicles would improve overall road safety, while just over a quarter – 27% – said that they thought that the fact that such cars would always obey traffic rules would drive such safety.

An additional 10% thought that driverless cars would provide some safety boosts, but only on motorways.

“We are on the cusp of self-driving cars becoming a reality and, in the next couple of years, the automotive industry will be transformed beyond recognition,” said Mark Bridger, vice president of sales, Northern Europe, at OpenText.

“The technological advances in AI will led to a growing level of trust amongst British citizens when it comes to autonomous vehicles, particularly in regards to improving road safety.”

Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While UK consumers are increasingly positive about the safety benefits of driverless vehicles, the reluctance by many to get in one suggests that far more needs to be done by the automotive industry to ensure that confidence grows.

For OpenText, safety is going to be at the heart of this.

“In this hyper-connected world, car companies, therefore, need to ensure they are not only delivering the most innovative connected technology, but that this technology is also safe and reliable in order to install the level of trust needed for mass adoption,” said Bridger.

“AI will enable automakers to analyse, adapt, and suggest solutions based on data, bringing the world of driverless cars closer to reality.”