Alphabet’s Waymo plans fully driverless rides in San Francisco

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Waymo, Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car unit, said it would begin offering rides in San Francisco without a driver behind the wheel, seeking to catch up to rival Cruise on its home turf. The driverless rides will be available only for Waymo staff to start, the company said Wednesday in a statement. (The company previewed the announcement in a March 21 blog post.) The unit also announced plans to expand its Arizona operations to cover downtown Phoenix. It has offered autonomous journeys to the public in the Phoenix metropolitan area since 2020.

“We’ve learned so much from our San Francisco Trusted Testers over the last six months, not to mention the innumerable lessons from our riders in the years since launching our fully autonomous service in the East Valley of Phoenix,” co-Chief Executive Officer Tekedra Mawakana said in the statement.

Cruise LLC, majority-owned by General Motors Co., announced it would start offering driverless rides to the public in San Francisco last month — the rides are free for now until Cruise receives the necessary regulatory approvals to charge fares. The milestone triggered an additional $1.35 billion of investment from Softbank’s Vision Fund.

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Self-driving car startups like Waymo, Cruise and Amazon.com Inc’s Zoox have been testing their technology in the Bay Area over the past four to six years, including in San Francisco’s often challenging traffic conditions. The companies’ efforts have largely relied on gas-engine or battery-electric vehicles retrofitted with a suite of lidar and other sensors needed to detect everything — other vehicles, people, road blocs and more — in the environment around them.

The autonomous-car efforts also have depended on safety drivers behind the wheel to take over in the event of a disengagement. The pace of progress has quickened over the course of the pandemic, with several startups receiving permits to remove the safety driver in limited circumstances.

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