After getting the go-ahead from Arizona, autonomous tech firm Waymo has implemented the first ride-hailing service in the country that doesn’t employ human drivers. One month after securing approval, and with no major incidents to date, the company has begun offering its autonomous taxi service to paying passengers. On Tuesday, Waymo CEO John Krafcik gave a speech at South by Southwest (the indie music festival that evolved into a media and tech bonanza) to showcase how things were getting on.
He said Waymo ditched the Phoenix test drivers and is readying its fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacificas for other parts of the country. The festival was then treated to a short video of passengers yawning. Those yawns are actually trumpets, however, heralding the introduction of autonomous vehicles in North America.
Apologies if that makes it sound exciting, because the video clip is about as enthralling as relaxing next to a lavender-scented candle. But that’s the point.
Waymo has been on a mission to provide the public with propaganda evidence that autonomous vehicles are a safe and superior alternative to traditional cars. Barring a digital terrorist strike, they’ll likely be proven correct. However, skeptics will continue to remind people that driverless cars offer Google/Waymo parent company Alphabet all manner of new revenue streams. Self-driving cabs will rake in fares while privately owned “connected” cars provide all kinds of sellable data and advertising opportunities. Customers will also have more time to use web services when they aren’t busy driving.
The proposed trade-off is having the ability to relax, something which the video focused on extensively. After the novelty of riding in a vehicle that pilots itself wore off, practically all of the Waymo fares broke out their phones or started to nod off. While this is also possible in human-driven taxis, the company wants you to imagine the possibilities that extend beyond these borong activities — and not all of them have to be boring.
We’ve speculated in the past that the absence of a living operator could encourage passengers to engage in the absolute filthiest of human activities. An absence of watchful company makes a space feel more like your own. When questioned about the prospect of sexual activity in self-driving vehicles, Krafcik said he was unaware of any incidents thus far.
At any rate, Waymo is still pioneering the technology and remains a leader in the field. But the path for autonomous cars remains unclear. While the vehicles do boast added safety, practical assessments don’t expect them to reduce congestion or commute times. Likewise, they’ll only be profitable as a ride-hailing option once the associated technologies become cheaper than using the human alternative. In fact, the big money appears to be in personal data acquisition and in-car marketing — which doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to self-driving vehicles.
Waymo’s current business model involves sticking to ride-sharing and informing the public of the merits of computer-controlled vehicles. The company has expressed concern that the hardware required for autonomous driving could be too costly and impractical for the average consumer. “Because we see so much potential in shared mobility, the first way people will get to experience Waymo’s full self-driving technology will be as a driverless service,” Krafcik explained last November.
It also doesn’t manufacture cars, which would make direct ownership of its tech an impossibility unless it partners with an established automaker. Unlikely, considering most companies attempt to develop their own by purchasing smaller startups and adding the brainpower to their R&D programs. But Waymo doesn’t appear to have made its mind up on anything just yet.
“For us, having more people experience fully self-driving vehicles early is valuable,” Krafcik said at Web Summit 2017. “It will let us learn about how people want to use this technology — and those insights will inform our future work.”