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Alphabet is finally taking the driver out of some of its driverless cars

It’s limited to an experiment in Phoenix, but this move marks the beginnings of Waymo’s driverless future.

Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica drives on a road with other cars in the background. Waymo

After almost a decade, Google’s parent company Alphabet is getting closer to fulfilling its promise of rolling out cars that can take anyone anywhere without a driver behind the wheel.

Alphabet’s self-driving car company, Waymo, is introducing truly driverless cars to public roads for the first time, the company’s CEO John Krafcik announced today at the Web Summit conference.

That means there won’t have to be a person sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting to take over, and that the car’s computer system will complete all parts of the driving task — though for now, only in some of the company’s cars in Phoenix, Ariz.

While this move is still geographically limited, it marks the beginnings of Alphabet’s driverless future finally becoming a reality. No other company has succeeded in operating a fleet of fully driverless cars on public roads.

Though the company has yet to commercialize its cars, learning how consumers interact with and want to use fully driverless cars — as well as any new data the car collects as it drives by itself on public roads — is incredibly valuable. It could give the company a significant leg up on its competitors, which include GM’s Cruise, Tesla, Ford’s Argo AI and startups like nuTonomy, which recently was acquired by Delphi.

Waymo is also signaling one of its potential business models for self-driving cars, in the form of a car-share service. Over the next few months, a few hundred of Waymo’s early test riders will be able to hail these completely driverless cars to take them to and from work and other locations on a daily basis.

These test riders, who began signing up for Waymo’s public trial in April, will hail the cars using an app Waymo developed in-house. It’s not exactly the Uber or Lyft model — the latter of which Waymo has partnered with — because riders will have the flexibility to use the cars for however long they want, whether it’s for a single ride, a day or a week.

But where Waymo may be lacking relative to its competitors is in its automaker relationships. Krafcik talked about having different types of vehicles available to its consumers as needed — some that may service a variety of experiences.

Unlike some other players with similar ambitions — its partner Lyft, for instance — Waymo has only announced a partnership with one automaker — Fiat Chrysler — which provided the Chrysler Pacifica minivans Waymo is using today.

It’s unclear how Waymo would develop a service that had a variety of vehicles tailored to its consumers’ needs without either a more robust automaker partnership wherein the companies work together on more than one car or multiple partnerships.

The company will initially introduce these truly driverless cars in a part of the Phoenix metro area called Chandler, which the company picked because it has a simpler road system than a busier city like, say, San Francisco. Eventually, Waymo will expand the area within which its cars will be able to operate without a driver to 600 square miles, then gradually into cities outside of Phoenix.

“Over time, we’ll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, which is larger than Greater London,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a speech at the Web Summit on Tuesday. “Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the U.S. and around the world.”

This is how most self-driving programs will roll out across the U.S. — from small geofenced areas with fewer complexities like suburbs to more congested cities.

That’s contrary to GM, arguably one of its biggest rivals in the space, which is testing its cars in cities like San Francisco and then New York by 2018, first with a safety driver.

As the company’s cars gather more data and then learn from it, Waymo will expand the initial geofence to parts of the city that have more variables, like higher-density city traffic.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be cars operating outside of these geofenced areas with a safety driver behind the wheel or that Waymo has outright won the driverless car race. (The company declined to specify how many cars would be operating without a safety driver behind the wheel.) But it does mean Waymo’s promise of a driverless future is one step closer to being realized.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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