Uber’s self-driving vehicles this week were indefinitely suspended from driving on Arizona roads, but Waymo’s autonomous-vehicle program using self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, on the other hand, is gaining momentum in the state.
Company executives said Tuesday they intend to launch commercial ride-hailing services by the end of the year in Phoenix, a city that has served as the nexus for Waymo’s early-rider program and as a public proving ground over the past 12 months. At launch, the company will operate with its Pacifica, but in the not too distant future, the company’s users will have a second choice of vehicle. Waymo chief executive officer John Krafcik has unveiled a new long-term partnership with Jaguar Land Rover that will result in Waymo adding self-driving versions of the Jaguar I-Pace electric crossover to its fleet.
Those vehicles will begin testing in prototype form by the end of this year,and once production begins, as many as 20,000 of the self-driving I-Pace vehicles could be deployed within two years, both companies said Tuesday. After Phoenix, more cities will follow, Krafcik said.
With a luxury passenger vehicle joining the minivan in the company’s ride-hailing lineup, Waymo’s users could tailor their vehicle choice to the trip they’ve got planned—grocery shopping or soccer practice with the kids necessitates a minivan, while the I-Pace could provide an upscale experience for date night or a meeting with clients.
“Its size is perfect for city driving, its modern electric architecture is well suited for our technology [and] designed with the toughest safety standards in mind, and its big battery can let us drive all day,” Krafcik said. “The vehicle itself is graceful in the long tradition of Jaguar, and it’s safe and delightful. We can make this premium experience available to everyone.”
If there’s a downside for car enthusiasts, it’s that they cannot drive it themselves. Waymo’s self-driving system, one developed in-house that incorporates all the sensors, hardware, and software, handles the detection of the road environment and driving. The system has been tested in five million real-world miles of driving in 25 U.S. cities, according to Waymo, which began as the Google self-driving project. No other company has compiled nearly as many real-world miles.
That testing on roads shared with the public, of course, has taken on renewed importance and undergone further scrutiny over the past week following a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, which involved a self-driving Uber vehicle colliding with a pedestrian. Speaking Saturday at an industry event, Krafcik suggested Waymo’s self-driving system would have detected the pedestrian and avoided the fatal crash.
Arizona governor Doug Ducey has suspended Uber from testing its self-driving technology on the state’s public roads in the wake of the deadly incident, which is the first involving a fatality and a fully self-driving system. No regulatory prohibitions or restrictions affect others testing in the state, such as Waymo or Cruise Automation. Whether the ripple effect will create consumer reluctance, stirred up by the Uber crash’s occurring so close in proximity to where Waymo intends to operate, remains unknown.
Waymo started testing self-driving cars without human safety drivers as backups in the Phoenix area earlier this year. When the company commences commercial operations, it will not serve the entire city but operate in a geofenced area. The parameters of that area have not yet been made public.