Waymo Is Already Running Self-Driving Cars With No One Behind the Wheel

Waymo has been testing Level 4 autonomous vehicles in Arizona since mid-October.

byJustin Hughes|
Waymo Is Already Running Self-Driving Cars With No One Behind the Wheel

Waymo announced Tuesday that it has been running Level 4 autonomous cars, with no human behind the wheel, in Arizona since mid-October.

"After more than eight years of development, we’re taking the next step toward unlocking the potential of fully self-driving technology," said Waymo CEO John Krafcik at the Web summit in Lisbon, Portugal. "Starting now, Waymo’s fully self-driving vehicles—our safest, most advanced vehicles on the road today—are test-driving on public roads, without anyone in the driver’s seat. To date, Waymo vehicles have been operating on public roads with a test driver at the wheel. Now, in an area of the Phoenix metro region, a subset of our fleet will operate in fully autonomous mode, with Waymo as the sole driver."

Waymo is Google's self-driving car program that was spun off from its parent company last year. It has already been conducting extensive testing in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. Waymo recently announced that it will be tackling less-than-optimal weather conditions in Michigan this coming winter. Its Early Rider Program has given riders in the Phoenix the chance to try Waymo's automated ride-sharing service for themselves, though with a human driver behind the wheel ready to take control if needed. Soon, Early Riders will be able to ride in these Level 4 vehicles as well.

Level 4 autonomy is achieved when a car, rather than the driver, is able to make all of the necessary decisions required in all but the most unusual driving conditions. Tesla's Autopilot and similar semi-autonomous systems are only Level 2 systems, and require the driver to constantly monitor the situation and be ready to take over at any time. Waymo's leap to Level 4 is a huge step beyond even the Audi AI system of the new A8, which can take over driving but only through low-speed highway traffic jams. (You can read more about the different levels of autonomy here.)

This is likely the first of many Level 4 autonomous cars to hit the streets over the next few years. "ABI Research anticipates automotive manufacturers to begin shipments of  Level 4/high automation vehicle technologies for passenger vehicles by 2021, with North American consumer vehicle penetration reaching 1 percent of vehicles by 2025," said Susan Beardslee, Senior Analyst at ABI Research, in an email. That's a big leap in a short time, considering that Audi is only now beginning to roll out their Level 3 system, the first in a production car.

For now, Waymo's Level 4 cars will be geofenced within a 100-mile radius of Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Though they will operate with no one behind the wheel, a Waymo employee will still be in the car until confidence in the car's highly autonomous operation increases with experience.

"Waymo's work here in Chandler is groundbreaking as they work toward their goal of fully autonomous vehicles," said Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny in a statement. "At the same time, this research and development taking place in our community will ultimately make our roads safer and provide new freedom for those unable to drive. I look forward to a continued partnership with Waymo as they continue to develop this technology here in Chandler and throughout the region."

Less than a year ago, Chrysler provided 100 Pacifica minivans to Waymo to help develop not only its autonomous driving capabilities but also ride-sharing services—a threat to companies like Uber and Lyft, who still employ human drivers. Autonomous cars don't need breaks or paychecks, which could make Waymo's autonomous model more cost effective in the long run.