Waymo, Global Firms Start Their Engines For Self-Driving Future

In a pile-up of news about self-driving vehicles early this week, Alphabet unit Waymo led the pack by announcing that its autonomous fleet, operating in an area of Phoenix, is now without humans in the driver’s seat.

Soon, Waymo will be testing a business model for its driverless cars, while it continues to test its autonomous vehicle technology.

Over the next few months, the company will invite the public to ride in its autonomous vans, as it launches “the first application of our fully self-driving technology”—a driverless taxi service. Waymo’s autonomous vehicles already travel on certain public roads within the Phoenix metropolitan area, and until now, drivers rode along to back up the self-driving system. Now that the road tests have created a safety record for its autonomous navigation technology, the company says, it plans to expand its geographic footprint there.

“Over time, we’ll cover a region that’s larger than the size of Greater London, and we’ll add more vehicles as we grow,” the Waymo team said in its announcement.

Waymo’s initiative is a sign that automotive technology developers and carmakers may become more than suppliers of vehicles for other businesses, such as ride-hailing outfits like Uber and Lyft. Possibly, Waymo and other auto tech giants will build transportation networks themselves, growing their geographic scope organically as they, and the public, gain trust in their ability to navigate safely in one city after another.

Waymo hasn’t said whether it plans to integrate with ride-hailing apps to attract their users to its taxi service. [Waymo is currently in a legal battle with Uber over the alleged theft of Waymo’s intellectual property in self-driving vehicle technology.]

While Waymo is testing out the taxi model, it’s also keeping its options open.

“With Waymo in the driver’s seat, we can reimagine many different types of transportation, from ride-hailing and logistics, to public transport and personal vehicles, too. We’ve been exploring each of these areas, with a focus on shared mobility,” the company announced.

—China’s giant conglomerate Tencent, whose interests range from social media to Tesla’s electric vehicles, is developing its own autonomous vehicle technology, Bloomberg reported late Monday based on confidential sources. The system is still under wraps, but would put Tencent in contention with Baidu, China’s search engine, and a global array of other companies that are using their artificial intelligence, mapping, and sensor capabilities to build the transportation future.

—Groupe Renault is one of those contenders. The multinational company, headquartered in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, said Tuesday that it has developed an autonomous driving control system whose obstacle-avoidance function matches the performance of a professional  test driver.

The system results from a collaboration between the Renault Open Innovation Lab-Silicon Valley and Stanford University’s Dynamic Design Lab, the company says. The innovation “supports the launch of more than 15 Renault models with different levels of autonomous driving capabilities by 2022,” according to a company statement shared with Xconomy.

—Another French company, Navya, is the builder of a self-driving shuttle bus that will start ferrying passengers along a three-stop loop in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, the Verge reported. The eight-passenger shuttle will still carry a safety driver, though the autonomous technology is still expected to fully handle its navigation. Rides will be free.

Navya also supplied autonomous vans for the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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