Waymo said today that it plans to put tens of thousands of driverless cars on public roads over the next several years.
Waymo, the driverless-technology arm of Google’s Alphabet, said it will buy as many as 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-Pace compact sport utility vehicles equipped with robot technology, and deploy them in its driverless fleet.
Already, Waymo offers a small-scale driverless ride-hailing service in and around Phoenix, in Chrysler Pacifica minivans. It plans to connect that service with a ride-hailing app this year. No other company yet offers such a service.
The announcement came as driverless technology is under harsh scrutiny. An automated test car owned by Uber struck and killed a woman walking across a street in Tempe, Ariz., last week. Questions have been raised about whether the car’s technology worked as intended, and a backup Uber driver was apparently distracted at the time of the accident.
Uber stopped driverless-vehicle testing after the fatal crash. On Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s tests. Toyota has also suspended driverless-vehicle testing, as has Nvidia, a company that makes the main processing chip for Uber’s driverless system.
Waymo said it will begin testing the I-Pace later this year. Already Waymo has thousands of hybrid Pacifica minivans on order, and will add the I-Pace to its commercial fleet in 2020 as it expands driverless ride-hailing to other cities, the company said.
It’s unclear how consumers will react to fatalities such as Uber’s and whether that accident or others will slow down driverless-car development. Many safety experts believe that driverless cars, though far from perfect, already are safer than cars that people drive. However, statistics to prove it may require hundreds of millions of miles of experience on public roads.
Some industry critics have called Arizona “Wild West” territory for its ultra-light approach to driverless regulation. Ducey greeted Uber to his state with great enthusiasm in late 2016, after the company encountered regulatory pushback in California. Arizona has few laws restricting the use of driverless vehicles. It doesn’t require remote operators for the vehicles, for example, and allows driverless trucks on the road.
California recently issued a new set of regulations on driverless cars that goes into effect April 2. Companies can apply for permits to deploy driverless cars with no humans inside on public roads, with a tougher set of rules than are required in states such as Arizona and Florida.
Uber ride-hailing competitor Lyft has said it plans to offer driverless services in San Francisco at some point, but has remained silent on the Uber crash. In California, ride-hailing services are governed by Public Utilities Commission regulations, which will determine when and whether individual companies can offer robot ride-hailing.
The financial stakes are high, with experts predicting that the broader driverless-car industry, including vehicles for individual purchase, could be worth up to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. All major automakers, auto suppliers and most big technology companies are seeking to position themselves as industry players, along with countless startups.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to release new regulatory guidance this summer. A bill that would ease deployment of robot cars has passed the House; a similar bill is working its way through the Senate.