Waymo Gets Green Light For Robot Cars In California; No Humans Needed

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Waymo Gets Green Light For Robot Cars In California; No Humans Needed


October 30, 2018


Waymo is the first company in California allowed to test robot cars on public roads with no human driver behind the steering wheel, it said Tuesday.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has given Waymo a permit for up to 40 fully autonomous cars to drive both day and night on city streets, rural highways and highways with posted speeds up to 65 mph.

The company, which is the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, did not say how soon the vehicles might roll. Waymo, like most companies testing self-driving cars, has long put backup drivers and engineers in the front seats of vehicles for safety purposes and to gather data on the cars’ performance. The permit it has obtained is the first of its kind in the state.

“Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit,” Waymo said in a blog post. “We will gradually begin driverless testing on city streets in a limited territory and, over time, expand the area that we drive in as we gain confidence and experience.”

The company’s Chrysler Pacifica white minivans will ditch drivers initially starting around its Mountain View headquarters and neighboring Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto. Waymo employees will still be aboard to start, just not in the driver’s seat. Eventually the company will offer rides to the public as it does in Arizona.

Before expanding beyond those cities in Santa Clara County, Waymo will follow the DMV requirements to notify new communities and submit a request to the DMV.

Waymo is the progenitor of the worldwide race to develop autonomous cars, after pioneering the field with a secretive “moonshot” project at Google that began in 2009. Its success convinced others that autonomy was feasible in the near future, prompting automakers, technology companies and startups to pour billions of dollars into what they believe will be a revolution as transformative as the invention of the car itself.

Waymo has been testing its self-driving fleet, now roughly 100 vehicles in California, for years. But, like the 60 other self-driving companies in California, it has had drivers ready to take control if something went wrong. Nationwide, it tests about 600 cars in 25 cities.

In February, the California DMV finalized regulations for California cars to operate without drivers. Waymo applied for a permit to do so in April.

“California has been working toward this milestone for several years, and we will continue to keep the public’s safety in mind as this technology evolves,” said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto in a statement.

However, some consumer advocates caution that they think robot cars aren’t ready for public roads and threaten safety. That argument gained credence with some high-profile accidents, including one in Arizona in March, when an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian even though it detected her in the roadway ahead. The car’s backup driver was watching a video, although drivers are supposed to remain alert.

“The DMV is simply trusting Waymo — without any real verification — and is putting our safety at risk,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology director of Consumer Watchdog, in a statement. He referred to driverless cars as akin to “playing a video game, except lives will be at stake.”

Some states such as Arizona, where Waymo has been testing truly autonomous cars for over a year, already allow no-driver cars. Until now, California only allowed them on private test tracks such as GoMentum Station in Concord and the former Castle air base in Merced County, where Waymo tests.

To forgo human drivers, the DMV requires companies to provide insurance or a bond of $5 million, and to self-certify that their autonomous cars can navigate roads, and have been tested in the planned areas of operations. The cars must comply with all federal safety regulations. For now, that means robot cars must have steering wheels, brake pedals and other manual controls, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not yet issued waivers for cars to omit manual controls.

Among other California requirements: Companies must have remote operators who can communicate with passengers and send the cars recommendations for how to proceed if the robots get stumped. Because of transmission delays, operators do not actually drive the cars remotely. Companies also must have a plan for interacting with law enforcement. Waymo released its plan this month; it involves education for first responders and the ability for them to easily contact 24/7 Waymo phone support.

Waymo’s permit allows the driverless cars to give rides only to employees and non-paying members of the public. The DMV has a separate permit system for offering paid no-driver rides.

In the Phoenix area, Waymo gives rides to about 400 households that use an app to summon its robot cars for their everyday trips to school, work, nights out, etc. Most still operate with backup drivers. “Help shape the future of self-driving cars,” says Waymo’s website for Arizonans to apply as “early riders.” The company says Arizona is where it will first offer a commercial robot-taxi service.

The company plans a similar early rider program in California for people who live in its planned service area, but hasn’t yet said when that will start.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @csaid

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