Driverless cars are real. That’s the takeaway from a new announcement by Waymo, which says its robo-taxis in Phoenix, Arizona, have been navigating the city’s streets without safety drivers since mid-October and will start giving rides to members of the public in the coming months.
As Ars Technica notes, Waymo staff are still involved. But instead of sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle ready to slam on the brakes when the car screws up, they sit a row back and are prepared to hit a button marked “Pull Over” in the event that something goes wrong. As the Verge explains, there are other limits put on the vehicles, too: they will operate only in a 100-square-mile suburb of Phoenix, and will be available only to people signed up for its existing robo-taxi testing scheme in the city.
The news has been in the cards for some time. A recent series of press demonstrations by Waymo, showing off the ability of its vehicles to navigate mock streets without a driver, cranked up the hype dial even further.
Even so, this is a turning point for self-driving cars. It’s the first public American test of so-called Level 4 autonomy—defined as a car “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip”—and it aligns with Waymo’s publicly stated aim to shun semi-autonomous systems and launch fully autonomous vehicles from the get-go.
Many commentators believe that such vehicles are really still several years off—but with this announcement, Waymo clearly begs to differ. Now we’ll just need to see how smooth the ride is.