Waymo, the self-driving car company created by Google, is pulling the human backup driver from behind the steering wheel and will test vehicles on public roads with only an employee in the back seat.
The company’s move — which started Oct. 19 with an automated Chrysler Pacifica minivan in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Ariz. — is a major step toward vehicles driving themselves on public roads without human backup drivers.
Waymo — owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. — is in a race with other companies such as Delphi, General Motors, Intel, Uber, Apple and Lyft to bring autonomous vehicles to the public. The companies say the robot cars are safer than human drivers because they don’t get drowsy, distracted or drunk.
Waymo has long stated its intent to skip driver-assist systems and go directly to fully autonomous driving. It said the Waymo employee in the back seat won’t be able to steer the minivan but, like all passengers, will be able to press a button to bring the van safely to a stop if necessary.
Within a “few months,” the fully autonomous vans will begin carrying volunteer passengers who are now taking part in a Phoenix-area test that includes use of backup drivers.
Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik, who was to make the announcement Tuesday at a conference in Portugal, said the company intends to expand the testing to the entire 600-square-mile Phoenix area and eventually bring the technology to cities around the world. It’s confident that its system can handle all situations on public roads without human intervention, he said.
“To have a vehicle on public roads without a person at the wheel, we’ve built some unique safety features into this minivan,” Krafcik said in remarks prepared for the conference. “Our system runs thousands of checks on itself every second. With these checks, our systems can instantly diagnose any problems and pull over or come to a safe stop if needed.”