Waymo to Offer Phoenix Area Access to Self-Driving Cars

Waymo to Offer Phoenix Area Access to Self-Driving Cars

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John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, in January. The company is seeking a broader range of feedback from riders in self-driving cars, he said.

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Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

The day is still distant when you can actually own a self-driving car, but in certain parts of the Phoenix area, hundreds of people will soon be integrating one into their daily lives.

Waymo, the self-driving-car outfit spun out of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been putting millions of miles on its autonomous cars in various cities for years. On Tuesday, the company was to announce the next phase of testing: putting ordinary people inside its Chrysler minivans and Lexuses.

Those accepted into the program, which has already begun quietly operating, will summon a car with an app and then go about their business. They will be encouraged to use the vehicles to go anywhere they would normally go at any hour — the office, the movies, the supermarket, even a late-night search for ice cream.

Waymo is not charging those involved in the trial. It says it is casting a broad net for all types of people in an effort to accumulate reams of data about how driverless cars will be used in practice and not just in theory.

“We’ve given 10,000 rides internally, but if you’re just providing experiences to folks inside the company, you’re missing the broader range of diversity,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, said.

The application, on the Waymo website, is relatively brief. It asks for an address, the members of a household and a reason for applying. Choices include: “I think the technology is awesome,” “I want more time and resources back during my commute,” and “I dislike driving and think a self-driving car would be safer.” Applicants are not allowed to select “all of the above.”

Only those who live in Chandler, Mesa, Tempe and Gilbert — roughly the southeastern Phoenix area — will be eligible for the program. And the cars, for that matter, will not take them anywhere else — no weekend jaunts to the Grand Canyon.

Waymo, which has cautiously expanded the testing of its autonomous vehicles, did not give a specific number of people it hopes to enroll in the program beyond saying it would be in the hundreds. The company is adding 500 specially outfitted Chrysler minivans to its self-driving fleet, up from 100 now. Many of the minivans are destined for Phoenix.

Uber, the ride-hailing company that is Waymo’s biggest and bitterest competitor, began deploying self-driving cars in September in Pittsburgh. In December, it expanded the testing to San Francisco, but the city forced it to stop because its permits were not in order. Uber moved to Tempe, Ariz., before it began testing again in San Francisco.

Self-driving cars have evolved rapidly, with plenty of accompanying drama, but there are many miles to go. All the Waymo cars will have a technician who can take control in an emergency.

Waymo is also doing testing in the San Francisco Bay Area, near Seattle and in Austin. It has been working closely with Fiat Chrysler, leading to speculation they will jointly form a ride-hailing service that will compete directly with Uber. “We’re not about building better cars; we’re about building better drivers,” Mr. Krafcik said.

In February, Waymo sued Uber in federal court, claiming the company was using self-driving car technology stolen by Anthony Levandowski, a former employee. But Uber says it started developing the component — called lidar, for light detection and ranging sensors — before it acquired Otto, a company created by Mr. Levandowski, who now runs Uber’s self-driving car effort.

Waymo has asked the court to file an order halting Uber’s self-driving car work with an injunction. Several months before filing its suit against Uber, Google also demanded arbitration against Mr. Levandowski, claiming he had used confidential salary information while trying to poach former colleagues to his new venture.

It is not clear if the arbitration was settled. Uber is arguing that the Waymo suit should also be decided in arbitration because the claims stem from Mr. Levandowski’s time at Google and are covered by an arbitration clause in his employment contract.

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