Waymo opens driverless robo-taxi service to the public in Phoenix

By Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - Waymo will restart and expand its fully automated hail taxi hail service in Phoenix on Thursday, restarting its efforts to turn years of autonomous vehicle research into a profitable business.
Waymo, the self-driving vehicle technology unit of Google parent company Alphabet, Inc <togetLO>, announced that it will currently offer unaccompanied minivan rides to members of the Waymo One service in Phoenix. Within a few weeks, Waymo plans to open access to anyone who wants to download their smartphone app and take a ride within 50 square miles of Phoenix.
Waymo boss John Krafcik said during a conference call that the company will only offer driverless car rides for now. Within a few weeks, Waymo will restart the service for a larger 100 square mile part of the Phoenix area with Pacifica minivans from partner Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV <FCHA.MI> <FCAU.N>.
Some of the Waymo vans in Phoenix will still have escorts on board.
Waymo hasn't said where or when it will expand its robo-taxi business beyond Phoenix. "You can imagine we'd love the opportunity to bring the Waymo One driver to our home state of California," said Krafcik.
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced Waymo to cease operations this spring, Waymo deployed vehicles with no human attendants on board to provide five to ten percent of a total of 1,000 to 2,000 trips per week in its Phoenix service zone, Krafcik said. Rides in fully autonomous vehicles were limited to a small, select group of Waymo customers.
Waymo's effort to expand the service with unaccompanied vehicles on board is ahead of competing robo-taxi companies that offer a revenue-generating service in the United States. Waymo raised more than $ 3 billion earlier this year, mostly from outside investors.
Cruise, which is majority-controlled by General Motors Co <GM.N>, tests vehicles in San Francisco, but has not yet offered rides to the public.
The pandemic has dampened the demand for hail services of all kinds. In response, Waymo has drawn attention to the hygiene of its vehicles, Krafcik said. Waymo remotely monitors vans and staff remind customers to keep masks in the vehicles. The vehicles are cleaned regularly as part of a maintenance and fleet management partnership with car dealer AutoNation Inc <AN.N>, said Krafcik.
Fiat Chrysler has developed a system that can purge the air from a minivan after every trip, he said.
The field of companies trying to develop self-driving vehicles has consolidated as technological and regulatory challenges drove the prospects for significant revenue from passenger transportation into the future. Waymo and other autonomous vehicle technology companies have increased their focus on automating commercial vehicles for goods delivery.
Waymo rival Zoox was acquired by Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O> earlier this year. Ride-hail company Uber Technologies Inc <UBER.N> was knocked back in a fatal accident involving one of its test vehicles.
The US Congress has failed to respond to proposals to create standards and safety regulations that the industry can rely on when using self-driving vehicles as a legal shield.
In Arizona, Waymo notifies state officials prior to any change in duty.
(This story corrects the description of the service relationship with AutoNation.)

(Reporting by Joseph White; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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