Waymo now testing its self-driving cars on public roads with no one at the wheel

Waymo recently hosted a number of journalists at its private Castle testing compound, and treated us to rides with no safety driver behind the wheel – now, the former Google self-driving car company is going farther still, however, launching public road tests of its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans with no safety driver on board.

The tests aren’t limited to one or two routes, either; the test area where the truly driverless trials are being conducted is in Chandler, Arizona (part of the greater Phoenix metro area), and the cars are able to go anywhere within this defined space. It’s hard to understate the importance of this milestone: Waymo is operating at full Level 4 autonomy, sharing public roads with human-driven cars and pedestrians, with no one at the wheel able to take over in case things don’t go as planned.

That shows confidence – confidence that Waymo has managed to achieve truly capable L4 autonomy within the specific domain of Chandler. The current passengers for this test are Waymo employees, however, so it’s not as if the Alphabet-owned company is throwing caution to the wind; instead, it’s showing that it’s ready to move to the next major phase of operations after around a decade of working on this incredibly complex problem.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced the fully driverless trials at Web Summit today, and revealed the video above, and also noted that while the trial is starting with employees first, it’s soon going to expand to the existing members of the Chandler driverless ride hailing service trial that Waymo kicked off at the beginning of 2017. When that happens (sometime in the next “few months,” per Krafcik, Waymo will be operating a fully autonomous ride hailing service without any humans at the wheel, a major first for the industry in terms of realizing the dream of making commercial self-driving available to the public at large.

Krafcik also said that Waymo wants to broaden the geographic scope of its trial, starting with expansion in the near-term to cover the entire Phoenix metro area, which represents more acreage than the whole of the Greater London area, he noted (though it’s obviously far less dense).

Residents participating in the trial will also be able to use them exactly as they use the test vehicles with safety chauffeurs today – for any trips within the designated area, whether for commutes, trips to go shopping, heading to school or whatever their transportation needs. They hail the vehicles using a Waymo app, and being the trip onboard with a push of a button. There’s also an onboard support system that allows them to talk to a live Waymo support agent at any time.

Waymo’s stated goal is to ensure safer roads for everyone, and after having spent some time in the fully driverless Pacifica that will be operating in Chandler, I’m more convinced than ever they’re on a path to make this happen. Bringing that truly driverless Level 4 experience to public roads and public riders is a huge step, and a sign we could be hailing an autonomous ride sooner than you might think.