By Michael Hines

Waymo is offering people in the Phoenix metropolitan area the chance to make use of its self-driving cars for free.

Waymo car

Photo courtesy of Waymo

The company, which was formerly Google’s self-driving car project, just launched the Early Riders program. Waymo Early Riders is essentially a public beta test. Approved applicants are encouraged to make use of the company’s fleet of autonomous cars as often as possible at no cost whatsoever. The autonomous car fleet is almost all self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids, although there’s a Lexus RX450h available as well. Waymo seems to be searching for a diverse group of test subjects as the Early Riders program has lax application requirements.

Waymo

Photo courtesy of Waymo

Applicants to the Waymo Early Riders program must live in the Phoenix metropolitan area. That area includes the cities of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. They must also be at least 18 years old to apply. Those are the two and only requirements for the Early Riders program. Current program participants, listed on Waymo’s website, include a family of six and two couples.

Once accepted as an Early Rider everyone in the approved applicant’s household (kids included) will be able to summon a self-driving car at any time. The company hasn’t said whether the cars will be parked at participants’ houses or if they’ll just show up whenever they’re called. Parking the cars at home seems smartest until you realize that could mean five to six Pacificas in one driveway. In an effort to gather the maximum amount of data Waymo has set only one limit on the fleet’s usage. Trips must be taken within the aforementioned Phoenix metropolitan area.

It’s likely that the majority of people applying to the Waymo Early Riders initiative live and work within the program area, so the sole restriction really only rules out road trips and weekend excursions. The fact that Waymo is offering this program in Arizona is yet another testament to the state’s commitment to self-driving cars. When Uber’s fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90s was kicked out of San Francisco back in December the company immediately announced that it would continue testing in Phoenix.

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Photo courtesy of Uber

It’s unknown how many households will be accepted into the Early Rider program. A few months back Waymo CEO John Krafcik took to Medium to announce that the company had worked with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to add 100 self-driving Pacifica Hybrids to its fleet. This doesn’t mean 100 autonomous minivans are roaming the streets of Phoenix, but it does give an idea of how far the Early Riders program could be scaled. The vans themselves look mostly normal, save for the array of sensors and cameras mounted to the roof, grille, front quarter panels and rear bumper. It’s unknown whether the Pacifica Hybrids were modified under the hood in any way. America’s first-ever hybrid minivan is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine paired to a 16-kWh lithium ion battery pack. Max range is 566 miles, with 33 miles of all-electric driving possible.

Waymo car

Photo courtesy of Waymo

The Waymo Early Riders program is unique for several reasons. First is the fact that there are no human operators in the car. Another thing that stands out is the ability to use Waymo’s autonomous cars at-will. This stands in stark contrast to Uber, another leader in the push to create breakthrough self-driving software. The rideshare company beat Waymo to the punch when it launched self-driving cars in Pittsburgh back in the fall of 2016. However, riders were randomly selected and each car had a human operator in the driver’s seat. The Early Riders program is considerably riskier. Any flaw in the software will be seen by the public — as in the person in the car — firsthand. Waymo will also be slammed if any Early Riders are involved in accidents. Krafcik and other C-level executives at the company know this but decided to roll the dice anyway. Whether or not the data gained from this public data test proves more valuable than the risks involved remains to be seen.

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Photo courtesy of Uber