Alphabet’s Waymo plans fully driverless rides in San Francisco

Waymo, Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car unit, said it will begin offering driverless rides in San Francisco behind the wheel, in a bid to catch up with rival Cruise on its home ground. On Wednesday, the company said in a statement that driverless rides will only be available to Waymo employees to get started. (The company previewed the ad in a blog post on March 21.) The unit also announced plans to expand its operations in Arizona to cover downtown Phoenix. It has offered independent rides to the public in the Phoenix metropolitan area since 2020.

“We have learned a lot from trusted testers in San Francisco over the past six months, not to mention countless lessons from our riders in the years since launching our fully independent service in East Phoenix Valley,” co-CEO Tekedra Mwakana said in the statement.

Cruise LLC, majority-owned by General Motors, announced that it will begin offering driverless rides to the public in San Francisco last month — trips are free for now until Cruise receives the necessary regulatory approvals to charge prices. This achievement resulted in an additional $1.35 billion investment from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Self-driving car startups like Amazon.com’s Waymo, Cruise and Zoox have been testing their technology in the Bay Area for the past four to six years, including tough traffic conditions in San Francisco. The companies’ efforts have relied largely on gas- or battery-electric cars modified with an array of lidar and other sensors needed to detect everything — other vehicles, people, road blocks, and more — in their surroundings.

Self-driving car efforts have also relied on safety drivers behind the wheel to take charge in the event of a disengagement. The pace of progress has accelerated over the course of the pandemic, with many startups receiving permits to remove a safety driver in limited circumstances.

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