Google's autonomous taxis on the starting line

Monday, 27 august 2018 | Redacción CEU

When it seemed that the conflict between companies that offer ridesharing services, like Uber and Cabify, and taxi drivers could not go any further, a new actor appeared on the scene: a taxi without driver. Although Waymo's cars are not new, they had not posed any imminent threat to the sector until now, since they had only been working within a program of experimental trips. This situation is about to change, as the launch date of the first self-driving service of taxis seems to be close. Alphabet's subsidiary itself promises that before the end of the year, the company will start offering a "driverless" car service. What will this futuristic journey services be like? What will Waymo's proposal consist of? How will the appearance of the autonomous taxis affect the sector?

 

The subsidiary of Alphabet (Google) is reaching the last stage of a pioneering project, a phase that will be crucial to the successful implementation of a self-driving taxi service which will be accesible to the general public. These vehicles promise to be completely autonomous, although, at least initially, when its launch finaly takes place before the end of the year, they will still have driver supervisors on board. However, will Waymo be the first firm to achieve successfully the coveted level five of autonomous driving in which no type of human intervention is no longer necessary?

The first brave passangers of the Early Rider program

Waymo has been working for almost a decade on the improvement and perfection of a project of self-driving vehicles, and a year and a half testing their cars in real trips. During this time, the vehicles under these tests have circulated in 25 US cities. In some places like Phoenix, this program, which is known as Early Rider, has experienced a very high degree of participation, with about 400 people who have volunteered to go on these trips.

Thanks to them and to the rest of the collaborators in other cities, the company has been able to check the operation of their cars on predetermined routes: the path they follow to take their children to school, their itinerary to work, trips to supermarkets or their visits to the gym. All these journeys have been supervised. The travelers had a companion from the company that would check the proper activity of the vehicle at all times. If there is something crucial in the development of autonomous cars is the priority given to the prevention and the concern for safety.

Waymo is not the only company that has been working on the development of this type of vehicles. Nissan, General Motors, Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Ford are some of the major carmakers that compete to be the first firms to develop fully autonomous vehicles that  circulate efficiently and safely by road. Although many of these companies have meticulously tested their cars and proven that their work is moving in the right direction, it is fair to say that Waymo is the one that has more kilometers behind it. The subsidiary of Alphabet is distinguished from other brands in relation to the number of kilometers which their vehicles have travelled. However, and perhaps precisely because they have more experience on roads, their vehicles have also suffered accidents, luckely none of them has been fatal -although there are precedents like the accident of an Uber's vehicle in Arizona-.

 

Google's autonomous taxis on the starting line

The review of  Waymo's proposal

Will the implementation of this service be "the beginning of the end" of conventional driving? Will the implementation of this peculiar transport by demand be decisive for the disappearance of the traditional taxi? No, it won't. At least, in a definitive and imminent way. Autonomous driving is still far away from being standardized, although the launch of this service is an event worthy of praise and mention. The level five of self-driving, which no longer needs the intervention of any human being for its driving, is still a distant point on the horizon. However, it is no longer so distant thanks to Waymo.

The proposal of this company is disruptive, but it still requires the presence of drivers on board who travel with passengers, at least in the first phase. It also proposes the external supervision of company workers. For example, when one of these vehicles detects a situation that it cannot resolve itself, it will contact a response team so they can solve the problem. Nonetheless, this team will not drive cars in this type of circumstances, instead of that, they will send instructions to vehicles so they can put them into practice. At the same time, this team will alert the rest of the vehicles in order to prevent them from circulating in this area. Passengers and supervisors can also contact at anytime a service that will allow them to talk with the switchboard in order to submit inquiries or report an incident.
 
One of the biggest obstacles that the standardization of this type of taxi services faces is the legislation. For example, Arizona, which is the preferred state for conducting this type of tests, allows the legal circulation of these vehicles. However, this situation is difficult to extrapolate to most States and countries, at least for the moment. For this to happen, it will be essential to guarantee the safety and efficiency of these self-driving cars. Undoubtedly, if the launch of this service of transport by demand -whose cost we still do not know- is successful, it will give a considerable boost to the regulation of autonomous driving.

In fact, Waymo's plans do not stop here. Beyond transport by demand, the company has other projects in mind, such us the sale of autonomous cars to individuals, the development of logistics solutions or the adaptation of this technology to urban transport. Will any automotive brand be able to overtake Waymo in this exciting race?

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