In March, Waymo said it would launch a commercial ride-hailing service using its prototype self-driving cars before the end of the year. With just a few weeks left in 2018, that service, called Waymo One, is now operational.
Waymo One allows customers in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area (including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert) to request a ride in an autonomous car using a smartphone app. Cars are available 24/7 and can accommodate up to three adults and one child, but Waymo is limiting initial availability.
A company blog post noted that Waymo One is only available to Waymo "Early Riders" for the time being. These are members of the public previously selected by Waymo to ride in self-driving cars as part of a research program, which will continue alongside Waymo One. All vehicles will also have human safety drivers, and Waymo set up a customer-support service accessible via phone or instant message.
Waymo could expand its ride-hailing service to the general public eventually, but it's unclear when that will happen. The company just barely met its own deadline for launching the service, after all. Waymo also faces potential regulatory hurdles; so far, only Arizona and California have explicitly permitted self-driving cars to pick up passengers.
It's not surprising that Waymo is taking a cautious approach. Limiting where Waymo One operates ensures that vehicles drive on roads that are well mapped and don't present any challenges Waymo's tech can't handle. Waymo's test vehicles have already been involved in some crashes resulting from human driver error.
Tempe, Arizona, was also the site of the first known fatal crash involving a self-driving car. An Uber test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian there earlier this year, shortly before Waymo announced its commercial ride-hailing plans.
Limited scale or not, the launch of Waymo One is a big moment for self-driving cars. Several companies have discussed using these vehicles in ride-hailing services, but Waymo is the first to do so with actual customers. All eyes are now on Waymo, looking to see if an autonomous ride-hailing service will really work.