California has given Waymo approval to transport passengers on public roads in a fleet of self-driving vehicles. Waymo is the autonomous drive research and development unit that’s part of Alphabet Inc., parent company to Google.
- Waymo takes another important step toward self-driving vehicle development.
- California is the second state to allow Waymo to transport people in its fleet of autonomous cars.
- An engineer must still be seated in the driver’s seat and be ready to take control of the vehicle.
The California Public Utilities Commission has granted approval to Waymo’s application to not just test self-drive vehicle on public roads, but to be able to transport passengers in them, too. As reported by TechCrunch, this marks an important step in the Silicon Valley-based company’s efforts to use autonomous vehicles on public roads, and California is only the second state to rubber-stamp Waymo’s efforts to do so.
What this doesn’t mean is that hoards of human-free vehicles will suddenly start shuttling people all over the Golden State. The approval allows Waymo to join a small group of companies granted access to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Program. The other contributing firms – Zoox, Autox, and Pony.ai – are small start-ups specializing in self-drive technology.
Under the rules of this agreement, Waymo is also not allowed to charge for rides, and the company must provide its rideshare data to state authorities if they request it. This has sometimes proven to be a tough pill to swallow for auto companies and tech firms, who are spending many millions of dollars in the race to develop autonomous drive systems. Handing over data, and a potential edge on the competition, can risk these massive investments of time and money. On the other hand, safety advocates want to ensure self-drive research does not come at the expense of unsafe roads, or unproven technology.
Waymo One allows select users to hail a self-driving vehicle in the Phoenix metro area. (Photo: Waymo)
In a written response to TechCrunch, a Waymo spokesperson provided some insight into the company’s approach to its upcoming self-drive program in California. “The CPUC allows us to participate in their pilot program, giving Waymo employees the ability to hail our vehicles and bring guests on rides within our South Bay territory,” wrote the Waymo spokesperson. The statement also compared this opportunity to that of Waymo One, a fledgling rideshare service based in the Phoenix metro area.
Using a smartphone app, a Waymo One user hails a vehicle much like they would with conventional rideshares like Uber or Lyft. The car, one of a fleet of white-painted Chrysler Pacifica minivans with sensors mounted on its roof, then arrives and shuttles the passenger to their chosen destination. Sounds simple, but there are a couple of quirks.
To start, all rides must be within Waymo’s geo-fenced limits in the Phoenix area. Users also must apply online and wait for permission to join the program. This also holds true with Waymo’s Early Rider Program, which operates similarly but doesn’t charge fees.
A Waymo spokesperson confirmed the Early Rider Program – which also operates in Phoenix – currently has “hundreds” of users. It will continue to run parallel to Waymo One, which is the larger of the two programs with 1,000 participants.
Waymo One users are also allowed to bring friends and family along for the ride. And in case you’re traveling solo, but aren’t quite ready for a human-free taxi experience, a Waymo safety engineer is still seated behind the steering wheel, in case the vehicle can’t cope with a driving situation.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Playing by the rules might not make for splashy headlines about a driver-less future, but Waymo’s slow and steady course is giving it a strong advantage in the push towards mainstream self-drive vehicles and human-free rideshares.