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Waymo’s self-driving vans will take passengers to public transit

A last-mile program using app-summoned minivans launches in Phoenix this month

Waymo will start its new self-driving effort by giving rides to transit employees.

Most of what we’ve heard about Waymo so far has been related to its autonomous vehicle technology, including the 400 people who are serving as its first test-riders in the Phoenix region. Now, Waymo is testing the ride-hailing waters by giving locals rides to bus stops and rail stations.

This week, Waymo announced a partnership with Valley Metro, Phoenix’s transportation authority, to provide first-mile/last-mile rides with its autonomous vehicle fleet of hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans. This is the third AV program Waymo has introduced in the Phoenix area, after the early rider program, and a ride-hailing service announced in March using new electric Jaguar I-PACE sedans that hasn’t yet hit streets.

What’s particularly interesting is Waymo’s rollout of the pilot program, which will start by giving Valley Metro employees rides to work, then expand to seniors and people with disabilities who already use Valley Metro’s access program. Only after Waymo has studied the impact of the program will the service be opened to the public.

As for what the service might look like, Bloomberg got a peek inside Waymo’s early rider program, profiling a teen who uses one of Waymo’s minivans to get to school. The story also includes some insight from Scott Smith, CEO of Valley Metro, on how Waymo could improve transit service:

Some local bus routes are inefficient, Smith says, carrying just a few passengers in a vehicle built for 40. The partnership with Waymo could instead provide cheap connections to Phoenix’s high-capacity corridors of express buses and light rail. An autonomous car could drop you at one station, and another could arrive just in time to pick you up on the other side of the city. The problem with impact studies that have been conducted so far, Smith says, is that the data available today only captures the negative effects of ride hailing—not the benefits that could come from integrating self-driving cars combined with streamlined public transit.

Coordinated, integrated shared rides in air-conditioned minivans could go a long way in Phoenix in particular, where transit passengers must endure unshaded bus stops and long walks in the heat.

The news comes after Waymo reached a major milestone in its testing division, logging one million self-driving miles in a month. The company has also recently announced efforts to expand its AV program by licensing self-driving tech to personally-owned vehicles and developing self-driving trucks. Just this week, Uber announced it was shuttering its self-driving truck program. Uber also pulled its self-driving program from Arizona after its fatal crash.

The priority to connect passengers to existing public transit options is notable when recent studies have blamed ride-hailing for increased traffic congestion and declining transit ridership. At the same time, however, many cities are working with Uber and Lyft to subsidize last-mile connections, or attempting to launch their own microtransit services.

With Uber and Lyft now offering ride-hailing services as part of multimodal itineraries that include transit, and Lyft offering a discount for trips that start or end at a transit stop, Waymo’s decision to start with transit connections is a smart way to launch its ride-hailing efforts—and one that will likely be popular with city leaders.

A Medium post detailing the announcement as an “important step” even cast a bit of shade on its competitors in the ride-hailing space, which are often referred to as “disruptive” companies. “As always, Waymo’s goal is to be an enabler rather than a disruptor: to help everyone better utilize the investments and infrastructure that already exist today.”