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Here's why rides in Waymo's self-driving cars might be free

How much will Waymo's self-driving service actually cost to use? The answer may be nothing. Sometimes, anyway.

With massive losses posted every quarter, Uber's current business model clearly isn't working. That company needs a radical change before it can ever hope to turn a profit, and the most obvious fix requires a nut that Uber can't seem to crack: vehicular autonomy. 

Getting the driver out of the car could be a huge cost savings, but it's also a huge engineering challenge. Waymo, as it turns out, is well on the way to solving that challenge. So, then, how much will the former Google Self-Driving Car Project charge for its service? The answer might actually be nothing.

In a conversation with Waymo CEO John Krafcik earlier this week, I asked him just how much he expected the Waymo service would cost to use. His initial response was that a ride in a self-driving Waymo car would have a price "similar" to that of a service like Uber or Lyft. However, more interesting was his description of potential, alternative means of paying for rides.

"Business are saying to some of the users 'Hey, we'll pay Waymo to bring you to the mall, or to this destination, or to the hotel.'" Krafcik told me. "I think this is a really interesting future business possibility for Waymo."

You don't have to squint too much to see how that idea, a commercial entity incentivizing you to select it as your destination, looks a little like promoted search results. The parallel is not lost on Krafcik: "Google is our sister company, and there are some analogies there to the search model, but with Waymo it's the ultimate manifestation of this. We can work with businesses who want to bring shoppers to their location, and we can bring them right there in a way that the shopper doesn't have to pay."

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If you were looking to go to the mall anyway then this sounds like it could be useful. But if you were hoping to go to one restaurant and suddenly another offers to comp your ride if you dine there instead, that could send those exhausting "Where do you want to go to dinner tonight?" discussions into overtime. 

Even ignoring the cost, Krafcik is confident Waymo will be superior to the human-driven competition, and the reason boils down to one word: consistency. "Every driver is exactly the same," Krafcik told me. And, for the moment, every car is exactly the same, too. Waymo's entire fleet is composed of Chrysler Pacifica vans with clean, comfortable interiors and niceties like booster seats for kids. Sure, that's perhaps not the most glamorous ride, but it sure beats the last Lyft I took to the airport.