Autonomous driving

In the race for self-driving dominance, Alphabet’s Waymo still leads the pack

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 7:02am

In the wake of fatalities involving Uber Technologies and Tesla self-driving vehicles in the US this spring, the future of autonomous transport seems to have hit a bumpy road.

But every day in Phoenix, Arizona, 400 people of all ages are using Waymo self-driving minivans to get to and from school, work, the supermarket and anywhere else within a 100-square mile area as part of a pilot programme operated by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Ordering a Waymo ride is as simple as a few taps on a smartphone, and during their trips passengers are free to read, send emails or even take a nap.

“One year in, our early rider programme and our extensive on-road testing is helping us build the world’s most experienced driver,” Waymo said in a post on the website Medium on Thursday.

Autonomous driving has become an important and symbolic area of competition between the US and China, with a diverse field of big tech firms, start-up and traditional car makers competing for dominance. The technology promises to revolutionise daily life and transport worldwide, with leadership in the field signalling broader strength in science and technology applications such as artificial intelligence.


So far, US companies operate larger fleets that have driven far more miles than their Chinese counterparts, but the Chinese government is working to shift the balance. In April, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology delegated regulation of autonomous vehicles to provincial and municipal-level governments in a bid to speed the approval process for getting self-driving cars on the road.

In the US, Waymo and other companies already work directly with state and local governments. In April, Waymo filed an application with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to begin fully driverless field test drives in the state, as it is doing in neighbouring Arizona. The US industry saw a setback in March after two fatalities in the same month, one involving an Uber self-driving car that killed a cyclist, and another where a Tesla electric car driven in autopilot mode crashed and killed its driver.

Baidu, the first of China’s internet giants to enter the self-driving industry, launched a pilot taxi programme last month in Chongqing, with six cars offering autonomous pickup and drop-off in the Liangjiang section of the city.

Baidu overtaken by Waymo in US autonomous driving tests

Similar pilot taxi programmes are being conducted in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou by start-ups Jingchi and Pony.ai, both of which were founded in Silicon Valley but relocated their headquarters to mainland China last year.

Since Jingchi’s service launched in January, 24 vehicles have completed more than one thousand rides, said company spokesperson Qu Congcong. Pony.ai’s service began with seven vehicles offering rides in a suburb of the city, but chief operating officer Hu Wen declined to say how many cars currently comprise the fleet, adding that operations are “going smoothly.”

Of the many tech and car companies developing autonomous vehicles, Waymo clearly leads the pack. The company’s self-driving cars have been on the streets since 2009, and its Phoenix rider programme has given the world its closest look yet at what a community served by self-driving cars might look like.

Waymo, originally part of Google’s self-driving car operations, launched its early rider programme in April last year. The 400 riders, selected from over 20,000 applicants, were asked to use Waymo cars regularly and provide feedback as a step toward Waymo’s goal of operating larger autonomous ride-hailing fleets in more American cities. The riders in Phoenix, aged from 9 to 69, come from all walks of life and have diverse transport needs, which Waymo said will help the company maximise utility of it's for future riders.

Silicon Valley-born self-driving car start-up learns about Chinese rain

Waymo said user feedback has helped the company refine the pickup and drop-off process, ensuring cars stop in the closest and most convenient locations, while it has also learned how best to communicate with riders and accommodate those with special needs, such as those with young children, physical disabilities or in need of service animals.

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“As some of the first people in the world to use self-driving vehicles for their everyday transport needs, our early riders are helping shape this technology,” Waymo said in its Medium post.

Elsewhere in the US, Waymo has tested its cars in diverse weather and on different terrains in five other US states besides Arizona. Its fleet collectively drives some 24,000 miles (38,624km) a day and in February passed the five-million mile mark. Waymo has even deployed self-driving semi-trucks in Atlanta, Georgia, and is currently working with carmaker Jaguar on production of 20,000 driverless electric cars which would be used to launch a public ride-hailing service later this year.

Additional reporting by Sarah Dai