Waymo's Commercial Autonomous Driving Service Is Finally Here -- What Investors Need to Know

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At long last, Alphabet's (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) self-driving car company, Waymo, has launched its commercial autonomous ride-hailing service, called Waymo One.

The move is monumental not only because Waymo set and met its publicized target of launching the service by the end of 2018, but because it's the first commercial autonomous ride-hailing service with the backing of such a large tech company. Here's everything investors need to know about Waymo One, as well as how Alphabet will likely benefit from the service in the coming years.

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Who can use Waymo One?

In its initial phase, Waymo is only allowing "hundreds" of people who were in the company's Early Rider program (members of the public who've been testing the company's autonomous vehicles) to use Waymo One. This means that they're the only people who will be able to download the app, hail a self-driving vehicle, and pay for the ride through the app. The trips will be confined to the greater Phoenix area for now.

Riders can bring other people with them and request a ride from the Waymo One app 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Of course, Waymo's long-term plan is to roll out the service across the country, but this is the first step in opening up a paid service to the public. Waymo hasn't given any specifics as to when One will be available in more cities or which locations it will come to next, but in October the company received its first permit to test driverless vehicle tech on public roads in California.

What's different between Waymo One and the Early Rider program?

The main difference is that some people in the Early Rider program will now be paying for their rides. Waymo said the Early Rider program will continue in order to keep gathering feedback from riders and to test new features that will eventually be rolled out to Waymo One users.

Additionally, Waymo has installed new tech to its vehicles that make it easy for riders to contact the company for help, change their destination, and keep track of their trip. Inside the vehicles are screens that show the driving route, complete with rudimentary shapes of pedestrians, other cars, and general surroundings to illustrate to riders that the vehicle is monitoring everything around it.

Are the Waymo vehicles actually driverless?

Yes and no. The vehicles can drive themselves, but initially, there will be a safety driver behind the wheel of each vehicle to "serve as a backup only" to the company's autonomous technology. Waymo hasn't said when it will remove the drivers, though the company has given completely driverless rides to some people in the Early Rider program already. Waymo CEO John Krafiick said in a blog post that:

"Self-driving technology is new to many, so we're proceeding carefully with the comfort and convenience of our riders in mind. At first, Waymo-trained drivers will supervise our Waymo One vehicles."

How will Alphabet make money from this?

Waymo isn't going to make lots of money from One at the outset considering that it's only available to hundreds of people in just one metropolitan area. But Alphabet has always intended Waymo to be a viable business, as opposed to a side project. In the coming years, we'll start to see Waymo's true potential come into focus.

Investors should keep their eye on three key opportunities within Waymo, including its new Waymo One service, local delivery and logistics services, and technology licensing to automakers. The combination of those three efforts could make Waymo a $175 billion company in the coming years according to Morgan Stanley.

This is just the beginning of Waymo's public rollout of autonomous vehicle technologies, and in the coming years, there will likely be many more exciting developments and services. Intel believes autonomous vehicles will create a $7 trillion passenger economy by 2050, and so far Alphabet's Waymo is a first-mover in this market. All of this means that investors looking for arguably the best autonomous vehicle play need to look no further than Waymo.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.