Waymo Wants to Drive You Around Without A Steering Wheel

Waymo Wants to Drive You Around Without A Steering Wheel
Illustration: Waymo

When there are countless ride-hailing apps out there, there are only so many ways for newcomers to distinguish themselves from the Ubers and Lyfts of the world. Well, leave it to Alphabet’s self-driving car branch, Waymo, to do exactly that: on Wednesday, the company announced a new kind of ride-hailing vehicle without pedals, a steering wheel, or a driver and it’s allegedly coming to the U.S. sometime in the unspecified future.

The design is being mapped out as part of Waymo One, the company’s burgeoning ride-hailing service that’s currently being rolled out across San Fransisco following its Phoenix debut late last year. One’s entire gimmick is based around autonomy: every Waymo One vehicle is branded as “fully autonomous,” which means — in ideal conditions — the cars can get riders to their destination based on its self-driving software alone. If a driver’s onboard, it’s in a standby position, where they’re sitting alongside riders to keep an eye out for any hiccups in the car’s steering prowess. (Waymo One only operates without a driver present in Phoenix, Arizona.)

In other words: these cars don’t typically have anyone behind the wheel. So it’s not a stretch to just… toss out the wheel entirely.

Auto purists might scoff at the idea of ripping out the basic pieces of hardware that make a car a car, but you can’t deny that the mockups Waymo included in the announcement look downright cosy. The car’s design — a modified Zeekr minivan whose shape falls somewhere between “luxury vehicle” and “kind of egg-like” — is the result of a collaboration between Waymo and the Zeekr’s parent company, the Chinese automaker Geely. A lot of its unusual design can be boiled down to accessibility: Waymo’s concept features a flat floor with a low step-in height, and doors that slide, instead of swinging open on a hinge. And while these cars might be missing a driver’s seat, Waymo promises that passengers will have ample leg and headroom, not to mention reclining seats.

Before you get too excited, just know that these futuristic car eggs won’t be zooming down your streets anytime soon. Waymo mentioned in its blog that it plans to introduce these electric, rider-first, fully autonomous vehicles into its U.S. fleet “in the years to come.” Mysterious!

Honestly, we should be giving the company all the time it needs. Autonomous cars, like regular cars, have been known to kill people — and a lot of the testing that happens with driverless vehicles is completely devoid of regulation. The Senate’s historically floundered when it comes to getting a handle on these things, which means the responsibility for oversight falls on individual states. So, we’re stuck with a patchwork of murky rules dictating how these machines are supposed to be operated. By the time these futuristic cars come to the public, maybe lawmakers will actually have their act together.