It's happening. Waymo deploys self-driving cars with no human monitor

It feels rather odd to be talking about this story the day after discussing Stephen Hawking’s latest dire warning about Artificial Intelligence, but since the ongoing Web Summit in Lisbon was the best place for such an announcement I suppose it makes sense. Google’s self-driving car division, Waymo, is getting ready to begin offering free rides to commuters in the Phoenix area. There’s one catch, however. When you use your ride-summoning app on your phone to have the car pick you up, you’ll be the only one in it. (USA Today)

“What you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik told an audience at Web Summit in Lisbon Tuesday, according to a draft of remarks provided to USA TODAY.

“Over time, we’ll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, which is larger than Greater London,” Krafcik said, screening a video of Waymo’s driverless Pacificas cruising the streets of Phoenix. “Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the U.S. and around the world.”

Earlier this year, Waymo launched an early rider program in the Arizona city as a way of getting more information about both rider use cases and vehicle performance.

Check out this brief video report to give you an idea what the experience looks and feels like.

When Waymo first announced plans to do this they offered interested early adopters a chance to try the program out for free. More than ten thousand people signed up. (They aren’t saying how many were accepted, but they obviously can’t support that many at one time in the trial program.) People will be able to summon a car for any local requirements they have… commuting to work, picking up the kids at soccer practice, grocery shopping.

Most of the tests we’ve seen thus far have involved vehicles where there’s a human being along for the ride, ready to take over in case of an emergency. Waymo is upping the game to the fully automated stage by sending the cars out alone. There is no option for the human being to step in aside from shutting down the ride entirely. There have been a few accidents during the development phase, such as the car in Mountain View, California which crashed into a bus while trying to figure out how to get around some sandbags that had been left in the road. Presumably they feel that the bugs have been worked out if they’re going to allow families to begin carting their kids around Phoenix in them.

Since we’re obviously going to be following this path with no apparent way to avoid it, I find myself wondering about the actual experience of taking one of these rides. Like many of you, I use Uber on a regular basis (though I’m sure some of you prefer Lyft), so I’m no stranger to pulling out my phone, opening an app and summoning a car. But we’re also used to a friendly driver who knows our name greeting us when we open the door and hop in.

What will it be like to have a car quietly glide up in front of us, open the door and climb in, only to be sitting alone in silence as the car pulls away from the curb by itself? It’s an idea which, for most of us, was strictly limited to science fiction movies for our entire lives. It just feels as if that will be a jarring moment, stepping out of the comfortable past and into an alien future. Even if nothing goes wrong and these cars are even less prone to accidents than the vehicles we drive ourselves, society will have undergone a seismic shift.

Will people simply forget how to drive entirely by the time the next generation graduates from school? That will certainly give the robots a serious leg up on us when SKYNET becomes self-aware. Right now you could at least hope to throw your bug-out bag in the trunk and drive for the mountains. But once nobody knows how to drive – or even has access to a vehicle which could be driven – we’ll all be stuck on foot.

Is it any wonder that sales of bomb shelters are booming right now?