Do you get frustrated driving yourself around the East Valley? Would you be interested in free rides in a Lexus RX450h or Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan? Are you comfortable with technology?
Waymo has a deal for you.
The self-driving car program, part of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., is asking for East Valley volunteers to use its automated vehicles for free rides around the metro area for the entire family, the company said Tuesday.
The offer is the first of its kind for the autonomous vehicle industry, though competitor Uber has been driving a limited number of paying passengers in automated vehicles in the metro area as well. Waymo’s offer is more like a free chauffeur service for families willing to participate in the project.
Both companies still use a driver who can take control of the vehicle when the automation fails or needs help navigating traffic.
Who can participate?
Waymo is seeking people who can use the vehicles every day and already has been shuttling one Chandler family with four children to myriad sporting events, dinner dates and other appointments, the company said Tuesday. The company released a video using the family’s first names only.
The company did not disclose how long volunteers would be allowed to use the service for free.
It is seeking volunteers in parts of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. Other than being 18 and living in those areas, Waymo has said little about the qualifications to participate. The company said it is seeking participants with diverse transportation needs to add to its research on self-driving vehicles.
“Our early riders will play an important role in shaping the way we bring self-driving technology into the world — through personal cars, public transportation, ride-hailing, logistics and more,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post announcing the program. “Self-driving cars have the potential to reshape each and every one of these areas, transforming our lives and our cities by making them safer, more convenient and more accessible.”
People can apply online at https://waymo.com/apply.
The company also said it will add 500 new Chrysler vehicles to its self-driving test fleet, in addition to about 100 Chryslers already on the roads and 50-60 other self-driving cars operating in Mountain View, Calif., Chandler, Austin and Kirkland, Wash.
Waymo intends to have “hundreds” of Arizonans participating, eventually, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for Waymo.
“We’ve felt so welcome over the last year, as we were thinking about where to bring this early rider program, Arizona made a lot of sense,” she said.
Initially, participants only will be able to use the vehicles to travel within the region where Waymo is operating, which includes much of Chandler and parts of Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Phoenix, she said.
Other restrictions will include children younger than 16 need an adult to travel with them and limitations on how late riders can request a pickup, although Waymo plans to make the service available for dinner dates and other evening activities, she said.
“I would consider our program a bit fluid,” she said. “Really it is because it is part of our learning. We will continue to learn and make adjustments as needed.”
How safe are self-driving cars?
She said that the company has continued to hire test drivers since launching in Arizona last year and will need additional operators as the program ramps up. The testers initially were offered $20 an hour to operate the vehicles, though Haroon said she was unsure if that is the current rate.
Passengers in the Waymo and Uber vehicles in Arizona are probably safer than passengers in traditional vehicles, said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at University of South Carolina who has studied the automated vehicle programs.
“I’m concerned about automated vehicles, but I’m actually terrified about today’s drivers in today’s vehicles,” he said. “If you think about the amount of research and development in these vehicles versus a traditional driver … someone who is texting, someone who is drunk, someone who is in a vehicle that is un-maintained.”
Uber’s program in Arizona was temporarily halted last month following an accident in which a woman who made a left turn in front of one of the self-driving cars was cited. The Uber car was determined to not be at fault, but the automated car did not prevent the accident. The company said it wanted to fully understand the circumstances of the accident before re-deploying its cars to the road.
Walker Smith said that so long as the vehicles have a safety driver, there is little difference legally from driving passengers in traditional cars.
“Google at some point will want to take the next step, which is to take those safety drivers out,” Walker Smith said. “That is the big step technologically. It introduces more uncertainty legally. This is the difference between getting on a plane and the pilot says he will rely on autopilot, and getting on a plane and not seeing the pilot.”
Walker Smith said Arizona is in a sweet spot for autonomous testing because of Gov. Doug Ducey’s 2015 declaration inviting the technology to the state, fair weather that minimizes issues for the cars, and its simple, grid layout for streets.
Ducey established an advisory committee in the state to facilitate the self-driving vehicle industry to advise the Department of Transportation, law enforcement and universities on how they can advance the deployment of them on state roads.
“The state believes that the development of self-driving vehicle technology will promote economic growth, bring new jobs, provide research opportunities for the state’s academic institutions and their students and faculty, and allow the state to host the emergence of new technologies,” said Ducey’s 2015 order.
The group has met just twice in the last year, and found no reason to suggest any new rules or restrictions on autonomous vehicles, so long as they follow traffic laws.
A licensed driver must be responsible for the vehicles, and the order allows universities to test vehicles with no driver on board so long as a licensed driver has responsibility for the cars and can take control remotely if the vehicle needs assistance.
“At this point, you just need to be a registered, insured vehicle just like anybody else,” said Kevin Biesty, deputy director for police at the Arizona Department of Transportation and one of the governor’s appointees to the committee. “For decades, manufacturers have tested new technology on the roadways. This really is no different.”
The governor touted this hands-off regulatory environment as the reason Uber brought its test fleet to Arizona in December following a registration dispute in California.
General Motors, Ford and Intel Corp. also are working on the technology in the state.