Waymo opens driverless robotaxi testing to San Francisco employees

Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving unit, has begun offering its San Francisco employees fully autonomous rides, the company said Wednesday.

Waymo will begin its rider-only operations within its “initial San Francisco service territory,” which spans from the Presidio to the farthest corner of Candlestick Point, and gradually ramp up from there. To be clear, Waymo is not yet offering a service, which would require a “driverless deployment permit” from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Waymo has already scored a “driverless testing permit”, under which the company will be ferrying its employees sans human safety operator, and it secured a “drivered deployment permit” in autumn 2021.

Waymo did not comment on whether it has applied for a driverless deployment permit.

The expanded testing comes nearly a month after Waymo said it would soon begin charging Bay Area residents for robotaxi rides with a human operator on board after securing a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It also follows the kick-off of Waymo’s Trusted Tester program back in August, which involved San Franciscans signing up to hail one of Waymo’s all-electric Jaguar I-Paces equipped with the Waymo Driver – again, with a human operator onboard – for free.

San Francisco has become something of a battleground between Waymo and its top competitor, Cruise, GM’s self-driving subsidiary. In early February, Cruise, which does have a driverless deployment permit, began opening up its own fully autonomous ride-hailing service to the public, but it still needs to secure a CPUC permit to charge for rides. Waymo did not share with TechCrunch whether or not it had already applied for its own permit to eventually charge for driverless rides.

In Phoenix, Arizona, however, Waymo has an established robotaxi dominance, although Cruise does have an autonomous delivery pilot in place there with Walmart that has recently been expanded. Waymo has been testing in Phoenix since 2016 and introduced a fully autonomous public ride-hail service there in 2020, through which it provides hundreds of rides weekly, the company says.

On Wednesday, Waymo also shared that it would be deepening its roots in Phoenix, expanding from the East Valley, where the Waymo Driver recently hit 500,000 autonomous miles, to downtown. As it’s done in the past, the company will first have Waymo employees hail trips with autonomous specialists behind the wheel, then open the service up to members of the public via the company’s Trusted Tester program.

“Building a safe, robust, and generalizable autonomous driver—the Waymo Driver—whose capabilities and performance transfer well between geographies and product lines is our main focus,” said Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo co-CEO, in a statement. “Just as our previous experience allowed us to deploy our 5th-gen Driver in San Francisco quickly and with confidence, the combination of our experience in San Francisco and Phoenix’s East Valley, grounded in millions of miles of real-world driving and boosted by billions of miles driven in simulation, is already guiding our progress in Downtown Phoenix and sets us up for future expansion of our fully autonomous ride-hailing service.”

Waymo said it can share no changes to the number of vehicles in its fleets in either San Francisco or Phoenix at this time.

Correction: Waymo is expanding its driverless testing in San Francisco, but it is not running a driverless service there yet because it does not have the necessary permit.