Google’s self-driving ride-sharing company Waymo has been working on launching robot taxis in California for years, and this week approval was finally granted. And while the company still has several rules to follow, Waymo can now charge fares and start driving self-driving passengers in select cities.
Waymo isn’t alone either, as GM’s Cruise has received similar endorsement. Waymo and Cruise already had DMV permits to test their driverless cars in California and offer free rides. This giant leap allows vehicles to operate more freely and pick up paying passengers in San Francisco and San Mateo, but there is one big caveat. Cars always need a “safety driver” present, even if that person does not control the car.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Published a “piloted deployment” permit to Waymo and Cruise at the end of February 2022, allowing shared rides between different groups of passengers.
Curiously, the CPUC gives Google’s Waymo brand more freedom to operate in the city than GM does, but both can take passengers. According to the permit, Waymo can operate in “designated portions of San Francisco and San Mateo counties in at any time of the day or night at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.
However, GM’s Cruise autonomous vehicles can only be driven on specific public roads between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and only at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. It should be noted that vehicles must stop in the event of heavy rain or fog for obvious safety reasons. Plus, the Nuro company already operates in San Fran, so Waymo and Cruise aren’t the only ones on the street.
Obtaining permission to continue testing with a “safety driver” in the vehicle is an essential step before either company is granted a permit for a full “driverless deployment”. If we get to that stage, they will be able to operate without a human being in the driver or passenger seat, which means the vehicle will be empty when it picks up passengers.
For now, someone will always be close enough to take over the controls in an emergency, but it’s still a big deal. Until now, free rides were available to a limited number of users as part of a test program. Expect both robo taxi brands to begin offering paid rides to trusted passengers in the coming weeks and months.