Waymo is hitting Uber where it hurts

Look at that golden lighting.
Look at that golden lighting.
Image: Courtesy of Waymo
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First Waymo, the self-driving car unit spun off by Google parent Alphabet, filed a lawsuit to halt Uber’s work on autonomous vehicles. Now the company has launched its first public trial of self-driving cars in the Phoenix area of Arizona, which happens to be where a self-driving Uber flipped over in late March.

Waymo is encouraging Phoenix locals to sign up online as “early riders” in its self-driving car program.

“As an early rider, you’ll be able to use our self-driving cars to go places you frequent every day, from work, to school, to the movies and more,” the website reads. Waymo says it will accept “hundreds” of people over the course of the program and that its initial coverage area—which includes Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert—“measures twice the size of San Francisco.” Rides are free.

Waymo’s announcement features a story about “Ted, Candace and their four kids,” a typical American family with a busy schedule. (Maybe they need Juicero?) Ted, Candace, and the kids have spent the last month commuting around Phoenix in Waymo’s self-driving fleet. Here, watch them talk about it in a promotional video:

A common knock on ride-hailing is that it’s a commodity business and will, ultimately, be a race to the bottom on price. But what’s great about this video, as press materials go, is that it’s so not-Uber. The lighting is golden and the music is mellow. The parents say sappy stuff like, “Last night we went out on a date and we got to cuddle. It was awesome.” Branding-wise, Waymo is the polar opposite of Uber, a company known for its hard-charging, regulation-dodging, winner-take-all attitude. As families start to think about what company to use for their daily self-driving needs, perhaps they’ll take that into account.

Meanwhile, Waymo also announced plans to put many more cars on the road. Waymo says it intends to add 500 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans—cars that, as you can see above, vaguely resemble a beluga whale—to its driverless fleet, a sixfold increase. Production of those vehicles will ramp up beginning in May.

You can almost hear the groans over in Pittsburgh, the headquarters of Uber’s self-driving efforts. Uber is hiring ambitiously for its Pittsburgh team but Waymo’s lawsuit has cast a long shadow over the project. On Friday, Waymo alleged that Uber is actively attempting to “cover up” its theft of trade secrets, and urged the judge to bar Anthony Levandowski, the Uber engineer and former Waymo employee at the center of the case, from continuing to contribute to Uber’s autonomous work. The last thing Uber needs is way more Waymo problems.