PARIS — The “robo-taxi” changed virtually overnight from a “what-if” scenario dreamt by automotive visionaries to the public pledge of an imminent rollout on Tuesday (Nov. 7) when Waymo and Navya independently announced plans to launch automated cab services in major cities.

Both Navya and Waymo aspire to offer highly automated ride-hailing services. The AVs promised by Navya and Waymo are minivans with room for at least six passengers.

But when it comes to business models and technologies, there is less in common between Waymo, whose developments are supported by Alphabet’s deep pockets, and Navya, a French startup operating on its first 30 million euros of venture capital.

Waymo is the world’s acknowledged leader in highly automated vehicles and the software/hardware technologies that go inside them. Navya has 160 people based in Paris and elsewhere in the world. It made its name as the world’s foremost developer and manufacturer of autonomous shuttle buses.

Christophe Sapet, Navya CEO stressed, however, that “Autonom Cab (Navya’s robo-taxi) will be the first automated taxi developed by the only carmaker in the world who actually makes and sells autonomous vehicles.” Referring to the automated shuttle business that has been Navya’s core, Sapet claimed, “There are over 50 Autonom Shuttles in service around the world today.”

Navya CEO speaks before he unveils Autonom Cab (Photo: EE Times)
Navya CEO speaks before he unveils Autonom Cab (Photo: EE Times)

Navya, which kept its Autonom Cab plan tightly under wraps before Tuesday, said that it will start operating its initial ride-hailing service in April 2018, when regular customers can climb onto a six-seat robo-taxi (with no steering wheel, no pedals) in a French city. The service could start “in Paris or in other cities elsewhere,” said Sapet.

By July 2018, Navya will have partners scheduled to launch their own commercial automated cab businesses, he added. Names will be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show next January, he promised.

Meanwhile, Waymo stole Navya’s thunder by announcing on the same day in a different venue — at a conference in Lisbon. Waymo will make its first commercial deployment of “Waymo driverless service” in the Phoenix metro area within the next couple of months.

Waymo’s Early Rider Program, which has been in operation in Chandler, Ariz., since last April, will be first to experience the new technology. Initially, a safety driver will be stationed in the car. As soon as the technology performs successfully, the safety drivers will disappear, according to Waymo.

Phil Magney, founder and principal advisor for Vision Systems Intelligence (VSI Labs), told EE Times, “The rollout is not too surprising, considering the string of news about Waymo lately.”

Magney noted, “About six months ago, Waymo ordered 500 self-driving Chrysler Pacificas to be built on top of its 100 in operation now, so it looks like the fleet will be in the order of several hundred in the near-term. Waymo gave no details (or timeframe) in which other markets it would expand beyond Phoenix, but we can assume that it would include other areas in which Waymo has been testing such as Mountain View, Austin, Kirkland, Washington, and soon to be Novi, Michigan.” He added, “Furthermore, Waymo’s recent agreements with Avis and AutoNation could play a role in expansion and maintenance of those fleets.”

According to Waymo’s chief executive, John Krafcik, the service will initially be a branded Waymo service but will be extended to other fleet operators, explained Magney. “Krafcik made note to the importance of fleet operators going forward where the fleets customize for different consumer applications as well as logistics applications.”

The two events on Tuesday illustrate that “things are happening fast in the autonomous vehicle world right now,” said Magney.

Next page: Under the hood of Navya’s Autonom Cab