A Waymo Chrysler Pacifica autonomous vehicle, with backup driver, in Tempe.EXPAND
A Waymo Chrysler Pacifica autonomous vehicle, with backup driver, in Tempe.
Ray Stern

Waymo Cars Have Driven 8 Million Miles, but How Many Are Self-Driving?

Waymo now says its self-driving cars have logged 8 million miles, and that a fully driverless fleet will serve the metro Phoenix area by 2020.

However, the company still hasn't publicly demonstrated that the vehicles are truly self-driving except in very limited locations.

Is a robo-taxi service, with no backup drivers, really ready to roll out that soon?

The company, owned by Google parent Alphabet, tells Phoenix New Times it intends to launch a fully driverless, taxi-like service in Arizona no later than December. But that'll only cover a relatively small area.

A full-scale program will come in 2020, Waymo says, with a fleet of vehicles capable of providing up to a million rides per day within a 100-square-mile radius around metro Phoenix by 2020. Even that's achieved, it'd leave about 90 percent of the roughly 1,000-square-mile metro Phoenix area unserved by the robo-taxis.

Last week, Waymo's CEO, John Krafcik, touted the progress toward the goal on Twitter and in statements on Friday at the National Governors Association meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"Waymo has self-driven 8 million miles on public roads, now at a rate of 25K miles per day," Krafcik tweeted. "This real-world experience, plus over 5 billion miles in simulation, is how we're building the world’s most experienced driver."

Analysts with Morgan Stanley called the announcement "significant" in an investor brief on Monday.

"The addition of 3 million real-world miles in just five months represents a significant step change in Waymo’s pace of testing since it took eight years to drive its first 3 million miles and nine months to drive another 2 million," the analysts said, according to FastCompany.com. The website said that a chart showing that pace of testing illustrates "why robot taxis are coming sooner than we might think."

So far, judging from Waymo cars seen in the east Valley by New Times, the backup drivers often appear to be controlling the vehicle.

This isn't to say that Waymo doesn't have cars that can drive themselves, to an extent. New Times rode in one in 2016. Waymo has run a limited robo-car rideshare service in some parts of the east Valley since April 2017, sometimes without backup drivers.

But Waymo won't say where these no-backup-driver vehicles can be seen consistently, and it won't reveal publicly the locations that its fully robotic cars have supposedly mastered.

Waymo has not yet publicly demonstrated that it has a car that can take an address and deliver a passenger from, say, Tempe to downtown Phoenix, then return without hitting anything.

It's unclear when Waymo will begin building up the public confidence that it'll be safe to ride in the fully driverless vehicles for more than a few blocks, and without anyone in the front seat. Presumably, the public would want to see fully driverless vehicles zipping around town without mishaps for at least a few months before they'll pay to risk their lives in them. But if the service is really starting in December, that time is now.

Still, optimism runs rampant about what Waymo may be about to achieve. In an article on Investopedia last week, RBC Capital analyst Mark Mahaney predicted "Waymo could potentially become a $180 billion company by 2030 with an operating profit of nearly $35 billion."

Krafcik, in his statements in New Mexico, said the robo-taxi service would hit "speed bumps" when it's deployed, hinting that a Uber-style fatality could be possible. Uber pulled out of Arizona and halted its self-driving experiments temporarily after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe on March 18.

“I mean, it's not going to be an easy rollout," he told governors at the meeting. "There are going to be incidents in a Waymo service and other services from from other players."

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, the state's biggest proponent of self-driving technology, was not at the meeting last week. He doesn't seem too confident in no-backup-driver cars, either: In May, New Times convinced Waymo to offer the governor a ride in a car with no driver behind the wheel.

Ducey hasn't yet accepted the offer.

[Clarification: Daniel Ruiz, Ducey's spokesman, answered a message on Tuesday this morning and said Ducey did attend a "portion" of the conference, but Ruiz didn't know if it was the portion in which Krafcik spoke. We'll update this article further if he finds out.]

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