Waymo plans to start offering rides in its fully autonomous vehicles — without a human safety driver behind the wheel — in San Francisco. The Google spin-off says its driverless vehicles are now only available to employees, but will soon expand to include members of the company’s “Trusted Tester” program.
Waymo is also making big strides in Arizona. The company’s service area is finally expanding to include downtown Phoenix after operating exclusively in the suburban towns of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe for nearly five years.
Waymo has been running fully driverless rides without a safety driver in these cities outside of Phoenix for over a year now. The company is one of the few trying to launch a full-scale commercial service built around autonomous vehicles, like Argo AI (which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen) and Cruise (which is backed by General Motors).
Waymo has been testing AVs in San Francisco for a decade, dating back to when it was still just an original project within Google’s X division. In 2017, the company launched limited transportation service outside of Phoenix, which eventually grew to include over 300 vehicles.
That’s how things stayed for several years, with Waymo meticulously focusing its efforts on a small service area in Arizona. Eventually, the company expanded its testing near Google’s Mountain View headquarters to include the dense, complex streets of San Francisco.
Last year, the company launched its Trusted Tester program, which is essentially a rebranding of the “Early Rider” program it ran in Phoenix. Customers interested in using Waymo’s robotaxis join a waiting list and, once approved, sign nondisclosure agreements to gain access to the company’s early technologies.
Eventually, the service will expand to include repeat customers who are free to speak publicly (and post on social media) about their experiences using Waymo’s self-driving vehicles, just as they do in Arizona. This can lead to embarrassing headlines, such as when a driverless Waymo van got stuck at an intersection in Chandler, prompting the company to send a roadside assistance team to come and extract it.
Earlier this year, Waymo got the green light to start charging for rides in its self-driving taxis in San Francisco. The California Public Utilities Commission has granted the company a permit that allows it to charge for rides as long as there is a human safety driver behind the wheel.
California requires AV companies to obtain a series of permits in order to start making money from their AVs. The state Department of Motor Vehicles oversees trial permits, while the CPUC determines when these companies can start business ventures. The permit Waymo obtained is one of the final steps needed before the company can launch a fully fleshed-out robotaxi business. The company will also need to obtain a separate permit to charge for rides in its driverless vehicles.
The vehicles will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, says Waymo. (Cruise, a rival audiovisual company, has a license to provide rides for members of the public in its fully driverless vehicles in San Francisco, but only at night.)
Waymo is currently testing at least 100 vehicles in downtown San Francisco and in and around Google’s offices in Mountain View. Last year, the company logged the most self-driving miles of any company licensed to test in the state: 2.3 million miles, a huge increase from 2020, when it had driven around 629,000 miles, and even the pre-pandemic year of 2019, with 1.45 million.
Waymo is still in the early stages of marketing its service in the Bay Area. From November to January, Waymo said it carried 1,503 passengers, according to the CPUC.
The expansion of Waymo’s service area in Phoenix and the impending launch of driverless rides in San Francisco demonstrate the company’s confidence that its vehicles can operate safely and efficiently in denser urban environments. . Cruise likes to point out that they singularly focus on dense cities like San Francisco to contrast Waymo’s approach of starting out in dry, flat, sunny environments like Chandler. In the future, these criticisms will probably carry less weight.