It is late afternoon in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m getting jittery waiting for my self-driving car to make a left turn before arriving at the coffee shop.
Seconds tick by, and the vehicle — an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan owned by Waymo — is letting too many opportunities pass by without turning. But before I can get truly annoyed, the Waymo vehicle makes the left, and my mid-afternoon caffeine fix is soon satiated.
Waymo, the self-driving subsidiary of Alphabet, launched its first commercial autonomous ride-hailing service here in the Phoenix suburbs on Wednesday — a momentous moment for the former Google self-driving project that has been working on the technology for almost a decade. I was one of the lucky few to test out the company’s robot taxi experience a week before the launch. And I say “lucky” because to ride in one of Waymo’s autonomous minivans, not only do you have to live in one of four suburbs around Phoenix, but you also have to be in a very exclusive, 400-person club called the Early Riders.
It’s not a motorcycle club for morning people, but rather Waymo’s year-and-a-half-old focus group for its self-driving cars. To start out, Waymo’s new self-driving taxi service — dubbed “Waymo One” — will only be available to “several hundred” members of the Early Rider program, said Dan Chu, head of product at Waymo. That’s exclusivity within exclusivity.
Since April 2017, the Early Riders have been testing the company’s autonomous vehicles for trips to work, school, and various errands. Some of these people will now migrate to Waymo One, while others will stay in the Early Rider program. Those who move to Waymo One will continue to use the company’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in much the same way they did while in the Early Rider program — except now they will be charged for the rides.
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