Innovation

Connected Car Tracker: Waymo Grows Tests While Amazon Eyes Tech

Two big moves in the self-driving space this week. The first comes from Amazon.

While the online retail giant has been tossed around in the list of potentials who could make a splash in the self-driving space as part of the company’s larger push to innovate in the broader logistics space, there hadn’t been much movement on autonomous vehicle technology proper. Amazon had been working on drones, planes, trucks and even ships — but always with a human at the helm.

Now, however, it looks like Amazon might have its sights set on self-driving tech.

It recently came to light that Amazon had put together a team to focus on potential applications of driverless technology. The autonomous vehicle think tank was first formed over a year ago, said The Wall Street Journal, and the initiative is still in early phases.

If Amazon finds success in this realm, it could prove to be a major logistics disruption — even more so than if the company had gone into logistics alone sans autonomous tech.

Of course, there’s the application of self-driving technology in delivery trucks, as well as possible ways to sync up self-driving passenger vehicles with Alexa as a means to control not just in-car payments and services via third-party integration, but to also control on the self-driving software end.

Additionally, for Amazon, driverless cars could boost last-mile prospects along with enabling interstate hauling. The company could even try to apply autonomous navigation to warehouse forklifts.

But Amazon’s logistics play could one day go well beyond terrestrial modes of transit and delivery.

It seems far-flung now, sure — but to dominate logistics, Amazon could look for ways to apply self-driving tech to its drone project. (Or, should we say self-flying.)

But that’s a big hypothetical on a number of levels.

For one, regulators still aren’t too keen on drone deliveries, even with human pilots at the helm. Sadly, we doubt autonomous drones will start making highway deliveries on in-car orders, flying straight to self-driving cars anytime in the foreseeable future. (Though that would be about as convenient as you could get from a connected car.)

More likely, Amazon will seek ways to sync drones with self-driving delivery vehicles to coordinate on the last-mile delivery end. Which is still huge and could fundamentally disrupt the way logistics play out.

Back on earth, self-driving company Waymo recently moved into a new stage of its self-driving tech project: expanded public tests. Waymo is now offering households in the Phoenix, Arizona, area a chance to incorporate the company’s self-driving tech into their daily routines.

It’s a live test with live participants, dubbed the “early rider program.”

“Over the course of this trial, we’ll be accepting hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds and transportation needs who want to ride in and give feedback about Waymo’s self-driving cars,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik wrote in a company blog post. “Rather than offering people one or two rides, the goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere.”

Similar to Uber’s self-driving test program in Pittsburgh late last year, residents in Phoenix will be able to hail rides with a technician at the wheel in case of an emergency.

However, Waymo’s test will cover a significantly greater area — twice the size of San Francisco, according to Krafcik. Likewise, users will be able to test the tech in personal vehicles as well as in on-demand scenarios.

“Our early riders will play an important role in shaping the way we bring self-driving technology into the world — through personal cars, public transportation, ride-hailing, logistics and more,” Krafcik said. “Self-driving cars have the potential to reshape each and every one of these areas, transforming our lives and our cities by making them safer, more convenient and more accessible.”

Waymo has not disclosed how many total vehicles will be operating in the region during the expanded public tests. However, the company will be rolling out a smartphone app to allow users access to the fleet.

The company is also currently accepting applications for the program, and plans to expand the program to other cities outside the Phoenix area are reportedly forthcoming.

The results of this test run could position Waymo well ahead of the pack of tech companies and vehicle manufacturers vying to get successful self-driving capabilities to the masses.

The one downside is that other geographies and urban environments may pose greater challenges for the budding technology.

Phoenix-area roads are largely laid out in a grid: the terrain is flat and the weather is dry — ideal situations for early public testing. But in branching out, Waymo will likely consider testing in regions where roadways and weather aren’t as kind to drivers as a means to get a better sense of what their tech is really made of.

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