The future just got a little closer: The company formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project said that it's gearing up to launch what it's calling the world's first driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix later this year.
That company, now known as Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) subsidiary Waymo, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) announced on Tuesday that FCA will soon begin building "thousands" of self-driving-ready Chrysler minivans for Waymo's new service.
Lots of companies have talked about the idea of a driverless ride-hailing service. But until today, only one -- General Motors (NYSE:GM) -- had announced concrete plans to build a slew of driverless taxis and deploy them in ride-hailing service.
GM is aiming to launch its self-driving fleet in 2019. If Waymo really is able to deploy self-driving taxis at scale this year, the Alphabet subsidiary could turn out to be the first mover in what is expected to become a huge new industry.
That has big implications. Here's what we know.
What Waymo and FCA said
Waymo and FCA have been working together on a driverless taxi since 2016. Engineers from both companies worked together to develop a version of FCA's well-regarded Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan adapted to Waymo's self-driving system. FCA has delivered 600 of the minivans to Waymo since late 2016.
Those vans have been operating in Waymo test fleets at several sites in the United States -- and as of November 2017, a few began operating without human drivers on board, in a designated area near Phoenix, Arizona. That was a historic moment: Under the definitions set by the Society of Automotive Engineers, those Waymo vans were the first "Level 4" self-driving vehicles. (Learn more about the "levels" of self-driving technology here.)
As Waymo CEO John Krafcik sees it, those first few driverless Pacificas were also the beginning of a commercial venture:
With the world's first fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road, we've moved from research and development, to operations and deployment. The Pacifica Hybrid minivans offer a versatile interior and a comfortable ride experience, and these additional vehicles will help us scale.
In a statement, Waymo and FCA confirmed that Waymo intends to expand its service to more U.S. cities over time, as the vehicles are delivered. But at least as of right now, the timetable for those deliveries isn't clear.
And that means the race to scale is on.
The competition: GM is close behind
GM president Dan Ammann argued last fall that the first company to deploy self-driving taxis at scale, meaning by the thousands, will enjoy a significant "first mover" advantage.
Here's why: Driverless-vehicle systems use machine learning technology, so they improve as they "learn" from experience. Because all of the vehicles that share a given system will share the lessons, the first company to deploy self-driving taxis by the thousands will have a head start on what looks to be a steep learning curve.
As Ammann and GM see it, that will be a commercial advantage: The systems will (presumably) be safe when launched, but at first they might not ride as smoothly as a car driven by a skilled human driver and they might not take the quickest routes to their destinations. Those are the kinds of things that will improve as the system gains on-road experience, and they're the kinds of things that could make ride-hailing customers in a given city strongly prefer one (or two) companies over others.
The race is on for self-driving supremacy
Who will seize that advantage? It'll be the first company (or companies) that can bring together all of the pieces: A safe system, the sensor hardware, and -- the big obstacle for most -- a vehicle that can be mass-produced by the thousands to a high level of quality.
GM has those things, and expects its system to be ready to deploy in 2019. Waymo and FCA, working together, also have those things, and are now saying that they will begin deployment later in 2018.
Does that mean that Waymo is poised to "win"? It might, though it'll depend on the details: For starters, how many vehicles will get deployed where and when? And there's a good argument that if GM deploys a few months after Waymo -- but a year or more before anyone else -- both it and Waymo will essentially be "first movers" with the potential to share similar advantages over time.
But here's the takeaway: As of right now, at least in the United States, this is a two-horse race for what could be a very profitable prize.