Waymo driverless shuttles are now operating completely unsupervised in parts of Phoenix, Arizona. File photo: Julia Wang / Waymo via AP

Lisbon, Portugal - Waymo self-driving cars are hitting the road without anyone behind the wheel as the Alphabet subsidiary steers toward launching an automated ride service.

The subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet has been testing autonomous cars for years, but with a driver behind the wheel to take over if needed - but on Tuesday at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik announced that a portion of its fleet in the Phoenix area will operate in fully autonomous mode with the cars handling all the driving.

The Waymo team said in a blog post: "After more than eight years of development, we're taking the next step toward unlocking the potential of fully self-driving technology. Starting now, Waymo's fully self-driving vehicles are test-driving on public roads without anyone in the driver's seat."

Waymo says its vehicles have logged more than 5.5 million kilometres of autonomous driving on US roads Waymo began as a project in Google's 'moonshot' lab in 2009. 

On demand

The unsupervised testing will initially be limited to part of Phoenix, Arizona, and Waymo employees will be the first to test the fully automated rides. The company plans to eventually launch a driverless on-demand ride service, potentially eliminating the need for car ownership in the long term.

"Over the next few months," it said, "we'll be inviting members of the public to take trips in our fully self-driving vehicles. A fully self-driving fleet can offer new and improved forms of sharing: it'll be safer, more accessible, more flexible, and you can use your time and space in the vehicle doing what you want."

The service will initially expand to members of a Waymo early-rider program, who will be able to get rides to or from school, work, shops, pubs or any other local spots they might typically go in their own vehicles.

Waymo appears to have a head-start in what is expected to be a competitive race to a ride-sharing future, with established automakers such as Ford and BMW and ride-sharing groups Uber and Lyft in the mix.

Cabby-free cab

Also on Tuesday, French company Navya unveiled an electric-powered, self-driving Autonom Cab designed to provide local rides for people in urban centres. The Autonom Cab, it says, has no steering wheel or foot pedals, and is capable of carrying as many as six passengers.

"Imagine what cities would be like if there were nothing but Autonoms running on the road," said Navya chief executive Christophe Sapet. "No more traffic jams or parking problems, fewer accidents and less pollution."

Navya cited partnerships with transport specialty firms such as Keolis in Europe and the United States and RAC in Australia, that it said would enable it to roll out Autonom fleets in cities.

Arma shuttles are running a regular route in downtown Las Vegas. Picture: Keolis North America

Regular Route

Navya's Arma self-driving electric shuttle was tested early in 2017 in Las Vegas - a US first, it said - and would start a regular route there on Wednesday.

Arma shuttles, operating in a collaboration with Keolis, will provide rides along a route in downtown Las Vegas, away from the casino-lined main strip.

A spokesman said said operators would be on board the shuttles - more as hosts than as back-up drivers - to introduce people to the technology, while the vehicle navigated the route.