DETROIT — A self-driving car company created by Google is pulling the human backup driver from behind the steering wheel and will test vehicles on public roads with only an employee in the back seat.
The move by Waymo, which started Oct. 19 with an automated Chrysler Pacifica minivan in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Ariz., is a major step toward vehicles driving themselves without human backups on public roads.
Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is in a race with other companies such as Delphi, General Motors, Intel, Uber, Apple and Lyft to bring autonomous vehicles to the public. The companies say the robot cars are safer than human drivers because they don’t get drowsy, distracted or drunk.
Google has long stated its intent to skip driver-assist systems and go directly to fully autonomous driving. The Waymo employee in the back seat won’t be able to steer the minivan, but like all passengers, will be able to press a button to bring the van safely to a stop if necessary, Waymo said.
Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research, says Waymo’s tests without a human backup are the first to his knowledge on public roads at normal speeds. The company picked Phoenix because weather conditions are ideal for testing with no snow and little rain, he said.
Waymo wouldn’t say how many vehicles will be in the initial test.