The first truly autonomous cars — vehicles that cruise the streets with no one behind the wheel — have finally arrived.
Waymo, which began life as Google’s self-driving car project, disclosed yesterday that it had let its driverless cars loose in parts of Phoenix, Arizona, with nobody in the front seats to take over in case of emergency.
Members of the public taking part in a Waymo trial in the desert city in the US south-west will be able to summon the vehicles through a ride-hailing app “in the next few months”, the group said.
Potentially one of the most disruptive new technologies, as well as one of the most hyped, driverless cars have been at the centre of a race between big automakers and technology companies. But while a number of groups are testing the technology on the streets with back-up drivers behind the wheel, most believe the advent of full autonomy is at least two years away.
The test, while limited to an unspecified area, is “not a one-time ride or a demo” but the start of “a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology”, according to John Krafcik, head of Waymo, who announced the milestone at a tech conference in Lisbon yesterday. The company plans to expand it to the entire Phoenix region, he added, without giving a timeframe.
Google shocked the auto industry when it first disclosed a rudimentary version of its driverless technology seven years ago this week, and it subsequently invested more than $1bn in autonomous vehicle research.
Rivals concede it still has a technology lead, though sceptics question whether the artificial intelligence is good enough to respond to the many unforeseen events that could occur on the road.
“I’m concerned they’re following the traditional Silicon Valley mode of: let’s put something out in beta and fix it as we go along,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a US advocacy group.
“我担心他们正在遵循传统的硅谷模式：先出个测试版，然后在使用中进行修补，”美国消费者维权组织Consumer Watchdog的约翰?辛普森(John Simpson)说。
Waymo believes it is the first company to reach a standard known in the driverless car world as level 4, meaning its cars can drive under full autonomy in preset areas that have been carefully mapped and tested.
Uber, General Motors, Delphi, BMW and others have been conducting testing to reach level 4, but all of them still keep a human in the driver’s seat.