Building an autonomous car is one thing. Getting a fleet of them to function correctly in real-world driving is quite another. Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, has recently pulled the curtain back on its daily operations center in Phoenix, Arizona, where it has been providing free rides in its fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica vans to people who have signed up for its Early Rider program.
In exchange for providing feedback on their autonomous ride-hailing experience, selected volunteers in the Phoenix area get to ride free within the designated testing area in a self-driving car with a human driver/technician onboard. Waymo is getting ready to launch the service for paying customers later this year.
It Takes A Team
Like any such large operation involving hundreds of vehicles, it takes a whole team working in the background to keep the vehicles clean, charged up, and maintained properly. In a blog post on Medium, Waymo provides details on managing the logistics that keep its self-driving cars on the road. The company says there are four teams working around the clock at its Chandler, Arizona, transportation hub consisting of fleet technicians, fleet dispatch, fleet response, and rider support.
Fleet technicians keep the self-driving hardware and software developed by Waymo in proper working order. The company compares what they do to the pre-flight checks that precede every commercial airline flight. Fleet dispatchers not only make sure there are enough cars in the right place at the right time, they also send some on different routes every day to gather data on new potential service areas.
Ellice Perez is in charge of all four teams. She tells The Verge more about what the fleet technicians do. “It’s kind of like before a plane takes off, there’s a pre-flight check just to make sure that it’s safe and ready to go. So we do that with our cars. We’ll do some calibrations to our sensors, we check the hardware, we check the software. We might double check the fluid levels, the tire tread measure, other safety things, and then the cars will be launched and put out on the road.”
The fleet response team deals primarily with unexpected circumstances that occur. If the car is unsure how to respond to a particular situation, it can get the techs back in Chandler to offer solutions. Road closures and accidents along an intended route are immediately communicated to the team. The proper response is then shared with every other vehicle in the fleet. Perez describes some difficult-to-navigate scenarios that often occur. “The car might see cones up ahead and could ask for context,” she says. “Should I move to another lane? Should I turn ahead? Should I reroute myself?”
Rider support is what we might otherwise call customer service. Leave your purse or wallet in a Waymo car? Contact rider support for help. The team deals with questions like “How can I connect my music?” and “What if I want to change my destination during the trip?” Autonomous ride hailing is, by definition, a novel experience for most riders. It is crucial that experience be a positive one if the fee-for-service model is to thrive. Rider support is there to burnish the image of autonomous ride hailing in the minds of customers so they will tell their friends, family, and co-workers good things about their experience.
Lilla Gaffney, a 29-year-old software product manager, has been an Early Rider member for almost a year. She says the cars today operate much more smoothly than they did at first. “At first the driving was pretty mechanical,” Gaffney tells The Verge. “When you think about how you approach a stop sign, the Waymo at first was like, ‘This is how I stop. Now I’m going to go. Nope. I’m going to go. Nope.’ And then it would go.”
Today, after the cars in Phoenix have racked up more than 8 million miles, Gaffney says, “It drives the way I drive. It’s a very cautious driver.” Gaffney and other Early Rider participants are asked to provide feedback to Waymo engineers on a regular basis. The information they provide is often incorporated into software upgrades that make the cars behave more like human drivers and less like robots. Gaffney says she enjoys being part of the Early Rider program because the cars are always clean and punctual. Not only that, she likes being a pioneer in an evolving technology.
Going For The Big Dollars
The Verge reports investment bank UBS estimates global revenues from self-driving technology could be as high as $2.8 trillion by 2030 and it thinks Waymo, which has ordered 82,000 self driving cars, could capture 60% of that market. Morgan Stanley recently upped its valuation of Waymo to a staggering $175 billion, $80 billion of which is expected to come from the company’s ride-hailing services. In case your Radio Shack calculator is out of batteries, that total valuation is three times what Tesla is valued at currently. Yikes! Time to call my broker.
In the past, Waymo has been tight-lipped about its future plans, but in May, CEO John Krafcik announced the company was in talks with Fiat Chrysler about developing self-driving cars for sale to private customers in “a couple of years.” He also says Waymo is in discussions with “more than 50 percent” of the global auto industry. It is known to be working with Honda on a new vehicle chassis designed from the tires up for autonomous operation.
Waymo may not have the flash of Tesla but it is positioning itself to be a major player in the field of autonomous ride-hailing services (aka robotaxis). It can be argued that it may even be ahead of Tesla in that regard. No self-respecting private car owner would be caught dead driving down the road with the Eggplant That Ate Chicago–sized pod of sensors Waymo mounts to the roof of its self-driving cars, but if Waymo is successful, there may be a lot fewer private car owners in the future as transportation as service (TaaS) becomes the norm for how people get around from Point A to Point B.