Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project, is stepping up its efforts to get autonomous-driving tech ready for prime time. After an initial trial run in Arizona, Waymo expanded its fully driverless taxi service known as its “early rider program,” featuring Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.
Last November, the company announced, “After more than eight years of development, we’re taking the next step toward unlocking the potential of fully self-driving technology. 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.” And in July, Waymo began doubling down on its program with even more partnerships, with companies like Walmart, Avis, and even a Phoenix-area hotel.
“We’ve been busy teaming up with partners this summer to create new experiences, and provide unique value for our riders,” Waymo shared in a blog post. “We know from our early riders that most of their rides are to run errands, shop for groceries, commute to work, head to dinner or fix their personal vehicles. We’ve tailored our partnerships to meet the top rider needs.”
For starters, Waymo is teaming up with Walmart to give early riders grocery savings whenever they’re ordered on Walmart.com. As orders are being prepared, Waymo self-driving vehicles will pick up and return riders to and from the retailer to collect their purchases. Waymo is also working with real estate investment firm DDR to send shoppers and diners to a major shopping center in Chandler, Arizona, helping folks avoid the hassle of driving and parking themselves.
The company is also offering autonomous rides to select hotel guests, and is growing existing partnerships with AutoNation and Avis. Now, when you take your own car to be serviced, AutoNation can offer a Waymo rather than a loaner car for all your transportation needs. And Avis will be offering Phoenix customers Waymo vehicles as last mile solutions to help with rental car drop-off or pickup.
These perks build upon what is quickly becoming an autonomous reality in Phoenix. For the last several months, residents have been able to call a ride in a fully autonomous car, “with Waymo as the sole driver.” Moving forward, the company expects to cover an area larger than the size of Greater London, and of course, more autonomous vehicles will be added as the initiative expands.
Under its “early rider program” trial, Waymo gave selected residents in the Phoenix area 24/7 access to its fleet of self-driving minivans. The initial goal was to get feedback from the public, and to see how the prototype self-driving cars perform in real-world situations. Waymo included hundreds of folks in this initial program, and now, it would appear that things are going better than ever.
Arizona makes a good testing ground because it’s one of a handful of states that have explicitly legalized the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. Uber moved its self-driving cars to Scottsdale after a dispute with the California DMV, although it now tests cars in California as well. General Motors’ Cruise Automation subsidiary also runs self-driving cars on the streets of Scottsdale.
Waymo is also in the process of expanding its the original fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacific minivans to 500. The minivans, which are actually plug-in hybrids, now constitute Waymo’s primary vehicle platform. Under its previous guise as the Google self-driving car project, Waymo used pod-like cars of its own design, and a fleet of converted Toyota Prius and Lexus RX 450h hybrids prior to that.
“The first application of our fully self-driving technology will be a Waymo driverless service,” the company announced. “Over the next few months, we’ll be inviting members of the public to take trips in our fully self-driving vehicles … When fully self-driving vehicles become part of people’s everyday routine, we can move closer to our goal of making transportation safe and easy for everyone.”
Updated on July 27: Waymo is expanding its fully self-driving car program with new partnerships.