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Back to the Future

The future is now as autonomous vehicle company Waymo has launched a fleet of self-driving cars without backup drivers in Arizona. The company is a division of Google’s parent company Alphabet. The company’s chief executive John Krafcik said customers will soon be able to hop rides.

“Fully self-driving cars are here”, Mr Krafcik said during a tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal. He lauded the development as “a big step forward to achieving our ultimate goal: safer roads, and better access to transportation for all”.

In their statement Waymo revealed, some cars that have already been plying roads in the Phoenix area have now been switched to fully automatic mode. This means there is no test driver behind the wheel. The company said it is removing that safeguard after its autonomous vehicles have test-driven some 3.5 million miles.

Take a Lift with No Driver

Local residents who have already participated in a test-riding program will soon be able to hitch rides in the fully driver-bereft vehicles, Mr Krafcik said.

“Since the beginning of this year, our early riders have been using our fleet — with a test driver at the wheel — to go to work, school, soccer practice and more”, Mr Krafcik’s prepared remarks read. “Soon, they’ll be able to make these trips in a fully self-driving car, with Waymo as their chauffeur”.

Policy Makers Catching Up

A Waymo employee will remain in the vehicle for now. But instead of being in the front seat, that employee will likely sit in the driver’s seat. (Waymo says that won’t always be the case, though.) The cars won’t have free rein over Arizona’s roads. They’ll be geofenced within a 100-square-mile area of the town of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. However, Waymo says it plans to expand to areas beyond that as its cars collect more data and conduct more trips.

And the cars won’t be available to just anyone who wants to go for a ride. Members of Waymo’s Early Rider program, which has been in operation in Chandler since last April, will be the first to experience the new technology.

As driverless car technology rumbles toward reality, policymakers have been working to catch up. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill to set rules for the new industry, and California’s Department of Motor Vehicles moved last month to allow companies to test self-driving cars without humans riding along.

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