The Google sibling has cleared the way to beat its nearest rivals, General Motors Co. and a couple of other players, by at least a year to introduce driverless cars to the public. A deal reached in January to buy thousands of additional Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which get kitted out with sensors that can see hundreds of yards in any direction, puts Waymo’s lead into stark relief. No other company is offering for-hire rides yet, let alone preparing to carry passengers in more than one city this year.
GM plans to start a ride-hailing service with its Chevrolet Bolt—the one with no steering wheel or pedals, the ultimate goal in autonomous technology—late next year. Most of the others trying solve the last remaining self-driving puzzles are more cautious, targeting 2020 or later.
The road to autonomy is long and exceedingly complicated. It can also be dangerous: Two high-profile efforts, from Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc., were involved in recent crashes that caused the death of a pedestrian (in the first known case of a person killed by a self-driving vehicle) and a driver using an assistance program touted as a precursor to autonomy. One of Waymo’s autonomous vans was involved in a collision just last week. But the perceived stakes are so enormous, with the promise of transport businesses needing little in labor costs, that many players are racing to master the technology and put it to work.
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