Waymo expands to Downtown Phoenix and San Francisco: What you should know about the autonomous cars

On March 30, officials with Waymo announced they are expanding their self-driving car service operation.

Here's what you should know about what that means.

Waymo? What is it?

Waymo, according to its website, has its roots in Google's self-driving car project, which began in 2009.

In 2015, Waymo offered its first autonomous ride on public road in Austin, Tex., to a man who is legally blind, and the service became an independent company under Alphabet, the parent company of Google, in 2016.

The company launched its autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix's East Valley area in 2018, and started giving fully-autonomous rides in 2019.

Where are they expanding to?

In a statement released on March 30, company officials say they have expanded their fully autonomous car operations to San Francisco, where the company has picked up one of their engineers that morning in an all-electric vehicle.

Company officials also released a video showing how their car operated in the San Francisco area.

Previously, the company had been testing the vehicles in San Francisco with a safety driver behind the wheel, just in case.

As for Arizona, company officials say they will expand their service into Downtown Phoenix.

When can I get a Waymo ride?

For San Francisco, officials with Waymo say they have already been providing rides to people in its Trusted Testers program since August 2021. Company officials did not say when the service will be offered to others not enrolled in the Trusted Testers program.

In Arizona, people can already get Waymo rides in portions of the East Valley, as part of the company's Waymo One program. The rides have been fully driverless for some time, and users will simply need to download the Waymo One app.

Rides in Downtown Phoenix will start gradually.

"Just as we’ve done before, we'll start with Waymo employees hailing trips with autonomous specialists behind the wheel, with the goal of opening it up to members of the public via our Trusted Tester program soon after," read a portion of the statement released on March 30.

On May 10, we reported that Waymo officials will begin the Trusted Tester program.

"You'll fill out some screeners, and then we are, right now, manually kind of importing people into the program, and slowly, gradually scaling," said Amanda King, a U.S. researcher with Waymo. "Really easy. It’s really great program that gives riders the opportunity to give early feedback, and help really refining and shape our autonomous driving."

King said the goal is to eventually give everyone interested the opportunity to take part in the program.

"It kind of takes you through a survey, where we get some demographic information," said King. "We do have a really big goal to ensure diversity."

What are people saying about the latest developments?

Joel Johnson, an autonomous car enthusiast who has a YouTube channel focusing on the vehicles, weighed in on Waymo's expansion.

"I think that really shows progress. It's exciting," said Johnson.

Johnson, who lives in Chandler, has been riding Waymo's driverless Chrysler Pacifica since they launched.

"I have over a thousand miles in those cars. I took videos of them. I trust them," said Johnson.

Are fully autonomous rides safe?

According to an October 2020 article by The Verge, Waymo cars were involved in 18 crashes and 29 near-miss collisions during 2019 and the first nine months of 2020, but no one was seriously injured, and ‘nearly all’ of the collisions were the fault of the other driver.

Other self-driving cars have been involved in accidents in the Phoenix area in the past, like an incident where an Uber self-driving vehicle hit and killed a 49-year-old woman.

Uber's self-driving car program is not connected with Waymo's, and in Dec. 7, 2020, the Associated Press reported that Uber sold its autonomous vehicles development arm to a company called Aurora.

Poll numbers gathered by the group Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety show Americans hold skeptical attitudes toward autonomous vehicles since at least 2016.

Are there other autonomous car services?

According to officials with the Arizona Department of Transportation, eight companies, including Waymo, have submitted to test autonomous vehicles in the State of Arizona. Two of the companies, Embark and TuSimple, are focused on trucks, and two other companies, Nuro and Udelv, have autonomous delivery vehicles.

In the Phoenix area, Waymo is not the only company that is running a self-driving car service, as RoboRide is running an autonomous medical shuttle program in Peoria as part of a six-month pilot program.

In California, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles show dozens of companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits that allows them to test with a driver. The permit holders include some big companies, such as Apple, BMW, Honda, Intel, Tesla, Toyota Research Institute, and Volkswagen.

California officials have authorized Waymo, along with Nuro and Cruise, to deploy autonomous vehicles.

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