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Waymo Autonomous Ride-Hailing: Dreams Realized, but Questions Remain

by Derek Viita | Mar 14, 2018

Earlier this decade, representatives from Google’s self-driving research project predicted the launch of a fully autonomous ride-hailing service within a short term.  Depending on the year and the audience, the predicted timeframe was anywhere from 4 years to the year 2020.  Last month, this bold proclamation was realized when Google subsidiary Waymo was given approval to begin rollout of a commercial self-driving program in its Arizona USA test bed.  And this week, Waymo released a video showing the first real-world usage of the first autonomous ride-hailing service.

Waymo Early Rider
Source:  Waymo

This development inches us closer than ever to a “first-man-on-the-moon” landmark for Level 5 autonomous transport.  The high-fives and fist-bumps are well-deserved.  Bringing a self-driving car from a DARPA project to a commercially viable application in just 13 years is nothing short of astonishing.

However, bear in mind that this service remains very much in a pilot stage.  And as we have reported in our consumer research on mobility choice and autonomous features, numerous factors will affect consumer interest and acceptance, and ultimately wider commercial success.  Although the “Eagle” may have landed, several more questions must be answered to reach that “one-small-step-for-man” moment:

What will each ride cost?  If we take a leap of faith and assume that all other aspects of Waymo’s service are equivalent to (or better than) other ride-hailing services, pricing will be key differentiator.  Without the burden of having to pay a driver, how will Waymo approach a pricing structure for this first-of-its-kind service?

What will be the general riding public’s reaction to Waymo’s autonomous service?  As Waymo’s “Early Riders” are under strict non-disclosure agreements, the only consumer insights we will get during the pilot program with early adopters will be seen through the lens of Waymo’s public relations department.  Therefore, it’s important to maintain some perspective on Waymo’s intent behind these videos whenever they are released.  Even the Early Rider application smacks of recruitment for a lobbying or public relations effort, rather than a scientific endeavor.  In order for such a service to become commercially viable, a much wider segment needs to use it.  After many years of consumer hesitance, how long will it take for this service to be perceived by the mass market as safe, convenient, and (most importantly) comfortable?

What will be the driving public’s reaction to a mass rollout of these self-driving vehicles?  Without dedicated infrastructure, Level 5 autonomous transport must share the road with other cars, including busses, taxis, and (most interestingly) rival ride-sharing drivers.  Will Waymo’s ride-hailing service remain practical when pickups are requested from more congested locations, such as nightlife districts, train stations, or airports?  If Waymo’s pricing vastly undercuts existing ride-hailing and other taxi services, what legal or social mechanism will prevent certain behavior from "bad actors," like blocking Waymo cars from picking up riders?

How will the core UX of a self-driving service translate to different road environments and cultures?  As we discussed last year when GM Cruise made a grand prediction about its service rollout, the positioning algorithm and the interior comfort level cannot be simply dragged-and-dropped to different markets.  Waymo’s first service area (suburban Phoenix USA) has wide, long, flat, and straight roadways which are laid out in a grid system.  Inclement weather is extremely rare here.  Roads are in relatively good condition with few potholes and good lane markings.  This test bed presents a very-best-case-scenario for fully autonomous transport.  To Waymo’s credit, they (and their partners) are currently testing in many other American markets, including those with hills, poorer weather, and poorer roadway conditions.  How must the UX change for these varied markets?  More interestingly, how must the UX change for different driving cultures worldwide, such as those where roadway markings and signals are merely suggestions and not hard rules?

Strategy Analytics congratulates Waymo on their accomplishment.  The news of this development is a momentous occasion.  Some of the benefits of autonomy we have dreamed of over the past decade are now being realized under the Arizona sun.  But as we stated previously, though the development of self-driving technology is difficult, it will also be the easiest part of developing an autonomous transport service.  And in many ways, there is no place in the world better suited to develop Level 5 autonomous transport than suburban Arizona.  The UX work required to get us from this day to where these benefits can be realized in London, much less a winter in pothole-ridden Detroit, still has quite a bit of ways to go.

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