By Jason Stone, GSN Contributor
Exactly how many vehicles are in the fleet is anybody’s guess. The number of jobs it brings to the East Valley is kept hush-hush. And where service is going next and when that will happen is still a closely guarded secret.
But nobody can dispute the potential impact Waymo self-driving cars could one day have for Chandler, the East Valley and even Arizona as a whole.
If you’ve seen one of those vans moving around the East Valley roads, you’re seeing drivers working out the kinks and passengers giving their feedback on how to make the rides better in the future.
That select group of testers is rating the performance of the vans through the Early Rider Program, and others have advanced to the new Waymo One program in hundreds of its minivans across Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert and Ahwatukee.
Waymo One is essentially a “traditional” ride-sharing service with a driverless van picking you up. The only catch right now is that a human is sitting in the driver seat to take over in case anything goes wrong.
Waymo’s development originally began in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. When Google created its Alphabet company in 2015, it rebranded the self-driving program as Waymo a year later to stand for “a new way forward in mobility.”
As part of the rebranding, the company set up shop in Chandler to launch its Early Riders Program last year.
“Before we decided on Phoenix, we had done testing in a number of different cities,” said Dan Chu, Waymo’s head of products. “But a really rapidly growing city like Phoenix really had what we were looking for.”
Much of the work Waymo does is still in secret – like many tech companies. It doesn’t give much clue on what it costs to retrofit thousands of Chrysler Pacifica minivans that are testing across the country at various cities. Nor does it reveal any specific future plans or even what kind of impact it brings to the job market.
Chu can’t even guess at a reasonable expectation of when vehicles will begin making all trips without a safety driver in the seat.
All they care about right now is receiving the honest feedback from the passengers who are testing out the vehicles.
“It might hurt when we first read it,” Chu said. “But we want that feedback. We really want to hear what riders are learning and what they’re experiencing. Because we really feel like that’s the most important thing about our program is the end-to-end feel. Until you have a rider who is experiencing it end-to-end, you can’t find out what subtleties you have to fill.”
The company overall is committed to Chandler. That evidence came last year when it expanded its 39,000-square-foot warehouse to 70,000 square feet.
It’s also making advancements around the world.
Last May it announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler that will add around 62,000 Pacifica minivans to the fleet. It also agreed to a deal with Jaguar Land Rover to design and engineer the world’s first premium electric fully self-driving vehicle.
Other big news for the company included the announcement of plans to build a manufacturing plant in Michigan, and it recently began testing self-driving semitrucks in Atlanta.
It hasn’t been a complete smooth startup in the East Valley.
In 2017, the company sued Uber over a former coworker of Waymo who had left to work at Uber. Waymo accused him of stealing information for its LiDAR technology. After a year of litigation, the two sides eventually settled for approximately $245 million.
It seems one way or another, Waymo cars have people talking about the future of travel or the concept of artificial intelligence in general.
Mayor Kevin Hartke last month said in his State of the City address:
“We are also, as I like to say, the epicenter of autonomous vehicle development, with companies like Intel and Waymo shaping the future of transportation. Did anyone see the Waymo vehicle outside, on your way in here? It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? I’ve had the opportunity to ride in that and I look forward to future opportunities, and tonight I want to thank Waymo for being a great partner as well as being here tonight.
“Our Chandler residents are the first in the nation to ride in fully autonomous vehicles, and we’re the first to adopt a zoning ordinance for autonomous vehicles and ride sharing services … I do intend to engage both regionally and nationally in the conversation and policy enactment of advanced vehicle technology – we believe Chandler needs to be at the table.”
New Maricopa County Supervisor Jack Sellers, a former Chandler City Council member, has been talking for more than a year about the need for highway planners to start studying how the construction of future freeways might have to change to accommodate autonomous vehicles.
After he was voted as the replacement for Denny Barney, who left the Board of Supervisors to take the helm of the East Valley Partnership, Sellers, a member of the State Transportation Board, said, “We are at the point where the next several years will be critical in defining our transportation infrastructure for the future.”
Chandler officials are at the forefront as well in preparing for the vehicles.
It adopted new zoning regulations for parking requirements at new construction to make way for employers whose workers would be using companies like Waymo to go to and from their jobs. Those requirements – which also include the provision of drop-off and pick-up sites for the vehicles – would mean developers won’t have to reserve as much land for parking spaces.
Chu said it’s just a matter of getting the general public to slowly accept changes of a new technology, much like riders in horse carriages had to do with electric cars more than 100 years ago. He said the company feels an area like the Valley with wide streets and large suburbs is a good place for Waymo to be.
“We’ve got folks everywhere from colleges students to retirees to working professionals here,” Chu said. “Many of those things came together made this whole area make a lot of sense as a place for us to grow.”
Waymo is still accepting applications for riders who are interested in participating in the Early Rider Program. Log on to waymo.com/apply.