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Waymo launches widescale test of self-driving rides in Phoenix

Alphabet's autonomous car division, Waymo, is expanding a ridehailing trial in Phoenix, Ariz., to members of the general public, marking perhaps the biggest real-world use of self-driving technology to date.

Area residents can now apply online, Waymo said this week. The company said it expects to enlist "hundreds" of people, and provide transportation to them at any time of day, so long as they stay within the test area — described as "about twice the size of San Francisco."

Waymo has been quietly engaged in a more limited test in the Phoenix area for about two months. The new effort effectively leapfrogs Uber, which has been doing its own small-scale testing in the ridehailing arena.

In fact Waymo promised to bring trials to additional regions, and along those lines will add another 500 modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to its fleet, dwarfing the 100 it currently has on roads.

The company is gradually working its way towards a commercial ridehailing service. Although it's currently dependent on human backups, it could eventually ditch human drivers to offer a fleet circling 24/7, with vehicles only periodically stopping to refuel/recharge, or undergo maintenance.

Apple is developing its own self-driving car platform, but its initial road testing will be limited to just three Lexus SUVs with only Apple staff as passengers. There's no indication that Apple intends to compete directly with Waymo in ridehailing, though Chinese service Didi Chuxing — in which Apple invested $1 billion last year — recently opened an autonomous car lab near Apple's headquarters.