[By Timothy B. Lee]

Waymo will begin offering fully driverless rides to ordinary people in the Phoenix area, the company revealed in a Wednesday email to participants of its Early Rider Program. The email was obtained by Techcrunch reporter Kirsten Korosec.

Waymo first began testing fully driverless rides in November 2017, and the company had planned to begin offering driverless rides to paying customers in 2018. The company even made a commercial, starring Jimmy Kimmel, touting the company’s driverless technology.

But the planned commercial launch of driverless technology didn’t happen. Instead, Waymo launched a limited commercial service called Waymo One in December 2018, with safety drivers behind the wheel of every vehicle. Since then, the company has said little about fully driverless technology.

But now Waymo seems to be dipping its toe back into the driverless waters. The company will soon start allowing ordinary Arizonans to ride in self-driving cars that have no one behind the wheel.

The email reportedly went to participants in Waymo’s Early Rider Program, a hand-picked group of beta testers who have signed strict non-disclosure agreements. Waymo is not yet offering driverless rides to the general public through Waymo One. The company may not charge anyone money for driverless rides for some time to come.

Waymo won’t switch Early Riders to driverless operations all at once. Initially, the company will use a mix of driverless cars and cars with safety drivers. Waymo says that riders will get a notification from the Waymo app if a driverless vehicle is coming to pick them up.

While there won’t be anyone in the driver’s seat, there may be a Waymo representative in the vehicle to monitor its progress. Waymo vehicles are also monitored from Waymo’s remote operations center in Chandler, Arizona. Riders with questions or problems can push a button to talk to a human representative.

With this latest announcement, Waymo is continuing its excruciatingly gradual process for launching fully driverless technology. Rather than introducing self-driving technology in a single high-profile launch, the company has taken a series of baby steps toward full autonomy over the last three years. It’s not known how many more years it will take to transform Waymo’s still-experimental technology into a profitable mass-market product.

~source