Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car service Waymo has increased the frequency of “rider-only” service for customers in its public pilot program in suburban Phoenix since August and aims to make that the standard as quickly as possible, CEO John Krafcik told reporters ahead of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in Detroit.
“Rider-only” means there’s no human safety driver at the wheel of its robotic white minivan fleet, an important distinction when it comes to talking about self-driving cars, said Krafcik late Sunday.
“From our perspective at Waymo, a Level 4 vehicle is a vehicle in which you can put a rider who doesn’t have a driver’s license or vision and they could move from point A to point B,” Krafcik said. “If you need a driver’s license, you can’t call it self-driving.”
He declined to identify specific companies for blurring the definition, but his comments come days after Tesla CEO Elon Musk made references to how soon the electric-car maker would roll out its long-touted Full Self Driving system that were both optimistic and somewhat confusing. Musk said during Tesla’s results call on October 23 that a “feature complete” version of the system could be ready as early as this year and that Tesla might have vehicles operating at that level in 2020, pending government regulations.
Asked to explain what level of capability he envisions, Musk described a system that is “autonomous but requiring supervision and intervention at times.” His caveat indicates a system that would not meet the technical definition of a Level 4 or Level 5 self-driving vehicle, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers and adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Curiously, Musk consistently avoids using the SAE scale when describing Tesla’s Autopilot and planned upgrade to full self-driving capability.
The SAE spectrum goes from Levels 0 to 5, from no automation to full automation, in which a human never needs to operate the vehicle and it can drive virtually anywhere. Waymo and other companies developing robotaxi and automated trucking systems target Level 4, in which the vehicle operates autonomously within a well-mapped, geofenced area. For Waymo, that area is limited to suburban Phoenix for now-with most of its Pacifica Hybrid minivans still showing up with a human safety driver.
Krafcik isn’t ready to say when will Waymo finally be able to offer rider-only all the time and scale up its commercial service.
“I don’t know precisely when everything will be ready but I am supremely confident that it will be.”
Read more: Hand Gestures And Horses: Waymo’s Self-Driving Services Learns To Woo The Public