Waymo, Google’s former self-driving venture that is now a business under Alphabet, has been given permission by California regulators to transport passengers in its robotaxis, TechCrunch has learned. The approval is a milestone for the company as it begins to ramp up toward a commercial service.
The California Public Utilities Commission granted Waymo a permit on Tuesday to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. Waymo confirmed the approval. A statement from a Waymo spokesperson provides some hints as to how and where the company intends to use this permit.
“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This is the next step in our path to eventually expand and offer more Californians opportunities to access our self-driving technology, just as we have gradually done with Waymo One in Metro Phoenix.”
The approval from CPUC is different than the permits issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving vehicles in the state. More than 60 companies have a permit to test in the state.
Instead, this gives Waymo permission to use its self-driving vehicles — which are the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans and eventually the Jaguar I-PACE electric vehicle — to transport people. The company still faces certain restrictions. It can’t charge for rides and the vehicles must have safety drivers behind the wheel. Waymo will also have to provide reports to CPUC with information on total passenger miles traveled and safety protocols.
The CPUC also gave Waymo an exemption that will allow the autonomous vehicle technology startup to use a third-party company to contract out safety operators. Waymo argued in a letter requesting the exemption that while the company’s “team of test drivers will include some full-time Waymo employees, operating and scaling a meaningful pilot requires a large group of drivers who are more efficiently engaged through Waymo’s experienced and specialized third-party staffing providers.”
Waymo confirmed that all test drivers go through its proprietary driver training program.
Waymo isn’t the first to receive the permit. Back in December, Zoox scored the inaugural permit from the CPUC. Pony.ai and AutoX, which started as an autonomous delivery company, also received permits.
Waymo has been testing self-driving vehicles in California for years. But its first ride-hailing service began in Arizona, a state with fewer regulatory hoops for companies to jump through.
Waymo opened a technical center Chandler, Ariz. and started testing there in 2016. Since then the company has ramped up its testing and launched an early rider program in April 2017 as a step toward commercial deployment.
In December, the company launched Waymo One, a commercial self-driving car service and accompanying app. The service, which does charge passengers, still has Waymo-trained test drivers behind the wheel.