Driverless cars are increasingly living up to their name. Alphabet’s autonomous-car team, Waymo, gathered reporters yesterday at its proving ground, a disused Air Force base called Castle, about 120 miles from San Francisco. The company’s aim: to show off the fact that its vehicles no longer need a safety driver.
And that’s pretty much what happened. Dozens of journalists were zipped around the firm’s fake city in driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans, but unlike other demonstrations, such as our test ride in Uber’s driverless cars, this one included no Waymo staff member in the front seat bracing to take over in case something went wrong. Instead, people just hit a button marked “Start Ride” above their head, and the car did everything.
So ... rash maneuvers? Heavy braking? Crashes? Nope. Reports of the test rides, like this one from Gizmodo, convey an experience of overwhelming ... mundanity. Now, in the tightly controlled environment of a testing ground that’s what you'd hope for. But it’s also the exact response that Waymo wanted. A ride in a robo-taxi shouldn’t feel exciting but normal. That, after all, is how they will make it onto roads as real consumer products.
Indeed, the fact that Waymo is starting to offer up totally driverless rides in its cars raises a question: when will such vehicles start to become a commercial reality? Rumors have swirled recently that the firm could be months away from testing safety-driver-free cars as part of its ongoing trials with real families near Phoenix, Arizona. But “we’re really close” is all that Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, would say to Wired on the matter of a commercial rollout.
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