By Tim Higgins and Jack Nicas
Waymo LLC is taking a historic step forward in the development of fully driverless cars by unleashing the first fleet of robot vehicles on public roads without humans behind the wheel.
The self-driving car division of Google parent Alphabet Inc. on Tuesday said it quietly began testing the robot vans on Oct. 19 in the Phoenix metro area, and laid out a vision for how it will deploy the technology to the public through a taxi service.
The outfitted Chrysler Pacific minivans still have employees in the car, but they are no longer at the wheel, instead in the back seat where they can only push a button to pull over the vehicle. Waymo said it plans to let passengers sit in the back in coming months, possibly without an employee in the car.
The deployment marks a milepost for the company, whose effort that began eight years ago ignited a race among auto makers, including General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., and tech companies, such as Apple Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., to become the first to put a commercial fleet of robot vehicles on public roadways.
All of these companies have been conducting tests on public roads but with people behind the wheel ready to take control in case the cars' computer gets stuck or goes haywire.
Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik, an automotive industry veteran, was set to reveal the milestone Tuesday during a speech at a tech conference in Lisbon, announcing that "in the next few months" members of the public will get rides in the fully self-driving vehicles first through the company's Early Rider program. Users will summon the vehicle through a smartphone app similar to how vehicles are requested through Uber.
"People will get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles, to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, or run errands," he said in the prepared remarks released in advance by Waymo.
The rise of ride-hailing services and advancements in autonomous technology have threatened the century-old car-making industry. The Boston Consulting Group has estimated that one-quarter of miles driven in the U.S. by 2030 could be through shared, self-driving vehicles.
The technology, however, still faces a series of obstacles to widespread adoption. Regulations vary widely by state and are murky at the federal level. It isn't clear the public is willing to surrender control to a computer, and unexpected safety issues could arise in tricky environments, such as snow.
Mr. Krafcik's speech, released in advance by Waymo, described the company's vision for a future in which cars are more often shared than owned and are designed differently than vehicles driven by people.
"A small fleet of fully self-driving cars could serve an entire community," Mr. Krafcik said. These vehicles could be designed for specific tasks. "One for napping; a personal dining room; a mobile office; or a vehicle just for when moving into your new place," he said. "You can even have that eight-seater SUV for your weekend trips. You could take these vehicles for one ride, for a day, for a week, or even longer."
The new rides are a major test for Waymo's technology, which has proved to be largely error-free in eight years. The company's vehicles have traveled more than 3.5 million miles on public roads, and only one has been reported to cause a crash--a vehicle in California last year hit the side of a bus at two miles an hour last year. Now Waymo will be able to see how ordinary consumers interact with robot taxis.
The cars no longer need only to get from A to B. They must also handle the menial tasks of operating a taxi. For instance, Waymo has touted its vans' automatic sliding doors, meaning the taxi won't be stuck if a passenger forgets to shut a door.
During a demonstration last week, Waymo gave rides to reporters on a closed course that included citylike scenarios. Riders were greeted inside by screens in the back seat with instructions to push a blue start button on the ceiling.
Waymo is also testing where to pick up and drop off passengers. Google was awarded a patent in July for a system that enables self-driving vehicles to find pickup and drop-off spots. Images in the patent, which hasn't been previously reported, depict a smartphone app that enables a rider to choose a pickup point, and then show the car analyzing the area for a safe spot to stop. One image shows the smartphone app telling the rider that the car "could not find a safe place to stop. Circling to try again."
In April, Waymo announced it was expanding its fleet of 100 Chrysler minivans by an additional 500 vehicles and a test program -- with operators behind the wheel -- for families of non-Google employees to learn how people might use autonomous technology in daily life.
The company declined to say how many fully autonomous vehicles -- beyond saying more than one -- would be without a human driver behind the wheel.
Initially, the driverless vans will be confined to a small area of metro Phoenix, with the goal of opening it up to the roughly 100-square-mile area already being tested with humans at the wheel and eventually to the entire metro area, which is larger than London.
Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com and Jack Nicas at email@example.com