Update on the current situation with Waymo (formerly Google):
Hand Gestures And Horses: Waymo’s Self-Driving Service Learns To Woo The Public
There's also a 5-minute video.
On a sunny spring day in suburban Phoenix, a white minivan stops at a crosswalk to let a man pass. He gives the vehicle a wave, signaling it should go ahead — which it does, until the pedestrian suddenly steps off the curb and dashes through the crossing. The van, sporting the green and blue logo of Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, brakes to a halt.
Six months after Waymo started offering a driverless taxi service near Phoenix, the robot vehicles and — and the public — are learning to coexist. Technically, the rollout has been a success. The Pacifica Hybrid minivans can make split-second adjustments after reading cues like a hand gesture, a sophisticated step for autonomous cars. They handle tricky turns and brake more smoothly compared to previous test rides by Forbes. More than 1,000 people are signed up to use the Waymo One service; tens of thousands are waiting to sign on. Outrage over the too cautious maneuvering of the programmed vehicles seems to have died down.
The driving algorithm just seems to be getting better. It's no longer too timid (nor too aggressive).
As a commercial endeavor that could ultimately become a source of billions of dollars of income for its digital advertising-dependent parent, however, progress looks almost glacial. Waymo is keeping safety drivers at the wheel for most rides and airport and highway runs aren’t yet an option. It’s also not saying when it will transition to a service without safety drivers and launch in bigger, denser markets — currently, it’s in a 100-square-mile stretch including the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
“We've always had a very conservative approach to making both our users and the public feel safe with this technology and what it is we're doing here," a Waymo spokeswoman said. Ride rates are in line with what Lyft and Uber charge but the company isn't saying how many people it's hauling a day or sharing revenue details. (Forbes’ recent Waymo One trip cost $8.53.)
About those cars without safety drivers:
There’s another piece of the Arizona program that’s closer to Waymo’s long-term plans of full autonomy. A few hundred people are getting rides in Pacificas with no safety driver through its Early Rider program, an earlier test rollout. Unlike Waymo One users, Early Riders have to sign nondisclosure agreements and aren’t allowed to discuss the program.
Early Riders are also a way for the company to observe how people adapt to a robotic service and the options they want. Recently Waymo integrated Google Play music into the Waymo One app to let riders automatically listen to their preferred songs and artists. Video streaming, games and other in-vehicle options that leverage Google’s many services are likely additions, though Waymo won’t verify that.
Although it's still sort of a small beta test phase, not open to the general public, there are actual true autonomous vehicles operating on public roads without a safety driver. (It's also mentioned in the video. The chief of police mentions that there are sometimes vehicles with no drivers.)
As far as the "too timid" criticism, that's something that happens even with human drivers who strictly follow the letter of the law. From a corporate liability standpoint though, I think they have no other choice. If they try to imitate the behavior of human drivers too much, including how they sometimes bend the law by not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, or going 5 miles over the speed limit, there would be an even bigger backlash to that, I think.