Driverless taxi rides are headed your way this year

Ready for a completely driverless taxi cab? Riders in the Phoenix area will have the chance to summon a fully autonomous, self-driving vehicle when Google's Waymo launches its ride-sharing service later this year, the company announced.

Waymo launched a pilot program last year, but has until now relied on vehicles that still have "operators" ready to take control in an emergency. And volunteers got to use the service for free. With the approval of Arizona regulators, it will soon start charging riders who will be able to summon a vehicle using a smartphone app, much like competitors such as Uber and Lyft. Those new vans will operate driverlessly.

"As we continue to test-drive our fleet of vehicles in greater Phoenix, we're taking all the steps necessary to launch our commercial service this year," a Waymo spokesman said.

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The latest version of Google's self driving car is tested outside the Google X labs in Mountain View, CA. The pod-like two-seater has no gas pedal and a removable steering wheel. The new pod lacks airbags and other federally required safety features, so it can't go more than 25 miles per hour. It's also electric and has to be recharged after 80 miles. Google's plan is to have to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Google self-driving car is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Scenes of daily life at Google X in Mountain View, California. A new Google self driving car is demonstrated for the media, elderly and legally blind test drivers at Google X in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)
Scenes of daily life at Google X in Mountain View, California. A Google self driving SUV on the streets of Mountain View, California. (Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 30: A Google self-driving car project is displayed during the Viva Technology show on June 30, 2016 in Paris, France. Viva Technology Startup Connect, the new international event brings together 5,000 startups with top investors, companies to grow businesses and all players in the digital transformation who shape the future of the internet. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
Scenes of daily life at Google X in Mountain View, California. A Google self driving SUV on the streets of Mountain View, California. (Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)
The latest version of Google's self-driving car contains cartoon like bumper and light features. The pod-like two-seater has no gas pedal and a removable steering wheel. The new pod lacks airbags and other federally required safety features, so it can't go more than 25 miles per hour. It's also electric and has to be recharged after 80 miles. Google's plan is to have to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry sitting in a Google self-driving car, Palo Alto, California, June 23, 2016. Image courtesy US Department of State. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
Google Robocar Racetrack Ride
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: Googles Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Google has logged over 300,000 miles testing its self driving cars around the country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: Googles Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Google has logged over 300,000 miles testing its self driving cars around the country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: Googles Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Google has logged over 300,000 miles testing its self driving cars around the country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: A reporter looks at a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: A bicyclist rides by a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A Google technican inside the latest version of Google's self-driving car outside the GoogleX labs in Mountain View, CA. The pod-like two-seater has no gas pedal and a removable steering wheel. The new pod lacks airbags and other federally required safety features, so it can't go more than 25 miles per hour. It's also electric and has to be recharged after 80 miles. Google's plan is to have to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry sitting inside one of Google's self-driving cars, Palo Alto, California, June 23, 2016. Image courtesy US Department of State. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
Photograph of Google co-founder Sergey Brin showing US Secretary of State John Kerry the computer inside a self-driving car, Palo Alto, California, June 23, 2016. Image courtesy US Department of State. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
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In a deal announced last month, Waymo said it plans to add "thousands" of completely driverless Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vans that will start serving Phoenix and then expand into other U.S. markets.

While specific details have yet to be released, Waymo could sharply undercut its competition on pricing, as drivers make up the biggest line item when it comes to operating costs for ride-sharing and taxi services. That's why it costs about $1.40 a mile to use a service like Lyft, compared to an average $0.80 a mile to own and operate a personal car, said Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute, which is developing that automaker's driverless technology.

Many experts believe that by switching to driverless vehicles, ride-sharing services will drop their prices enough to allow millions of U.S. motorists - especially those in urban centers - to sell off their cars. As much as 20 percent of the miles Americans clock on the road each year will be in driverless ride-sharing vehicles, according to a study released last December by the Boston Consulting Group.

Some recent studies have put the number significantly higher and former Ford CEO Mark Fields, a high-profile proponent of the technology, told NBC News that U.S. new car sales could taper off as driverless vehicles become more commonplace.

Toyota and Ford are working on their own driverless technologies and have expressed interest in entering the "mobility services" field as a way to compensate for that potential decline in traditional sales.

General Motors is also pressing into the field and is waiting for federal approval to start testing a completely driverless version of its Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric vehicle.

While GM has not specifically outlined its plans, it is widely expected it will use some of those vehicles in its own Maven vehicle-sharing service, and possibly provide others to Lyft, the ride-sharing service in which it now owns a large stake.

Many experts will be watching to see what sort of business case Waymo can make. Its key ride-sharing competitors have so far been operating deep in the red, so cutting the driver out of the picture could help turn the bottom line black.

But there is also concern about the safety of driverless technology. Joan Claybrook, the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, last month called upon state and federal regulators to slow down the push to test and commercialize autonomous and fully driverless technologies on public roads.

Critics note that there have been a number of crashes involving self-driving technologies, including around 20 at Waymo, though only one has so far been blamed on the company's vehicles. Uber has had several crashes and two separate federal safety agencies sent investigators to California last month to probe a crash of a Tesla Model S reportedly operating in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode. That system took much of the blame for an earlier, fatal crash in Florida.

But Waymo officials insist they are confident they can operate safely. Its various prototype and pilot vehicles have already clocked "more than 4 million miles test driven in the real world in seven states (and) 25 U.S. cities," said Ruth Porat, CFO of parent company Alphabet, adding that Waymo is logging another 10,000 miles daily while continuing to clock "billions of miles" in its computer simulators.

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