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Waymo, formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, is getting into the ride-hailing business, but with a twist. Sometime within the next few months Waymo will start offering the public rides in driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
"The vehicles will be fully self-driving," said Waymo CEO John Krafcik. "So you have your own personal space where you can sit back and relax."
While Krafcik has yet to say exactly when Waymo's ride-hailing service will launch, the first metropolitan area where people will be able to order a Waymo is Phoenix, he said. The public will use an app to catch a ride just as they do for Uber and Lyft.
Initially, those ride-hailing companies may hardly notice Waymo. After all, Waymo has a small fleet of minivans and is just starting up in one city at first. By comparison, Uber dominates the ride-hailing industry, while Lyft is a distant second, though quickly adding customers around the country.
Second Measure, which tracks the ride-hailing industry by analyzing credit card data, estimates Uber has an about 70 percent share of the U.S. market, while Lyft is around 25 percent and other smaller services make up the remaining 5 percent.
Still, Waymo's corporate parent, Alphabet, has deep pockets and a strategy designed to leverage eight years of developing self-driving cars. While other tech firms, many automakers, some auto suppliers, as well as Uber and Lyft are also developing self-driving vehicles, Waymo is considered to be ahead of others when it comes to taking the driver out of car and having it operate safely on public roads.
"This technology has the potential to be transformative," said Krafcik before having reporters take rides in Waymo self-driving minivans at the firm's R&D facility southeast of San Francisco.
Is the public ready to be driven in a robo-taxi with nobody sitting in the front seat? Waymo believes the answer is yes. If there is problem or issue with the ride, passengers will be able to contact a Waymo operator by simply pressing a button in the back seat. They can also tell the car when to stop if they want to get out before the original destination.