Waymo Gets California's OK For Human-Free Driving Tests As Robo-Car Skepticism Rises
By Alan Ohnsman, FORBES
October 30, 2018
With Waymo poised to formally kick off its commercial robo-taxi service in suburban Phoenix, the Alphabet Inc. unit (long known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project) has won approval from California to begin the first tests of autonomous vehicles on state roads without human safety drivers at the wheel as a backup. The permit also comes amid an uptick in skepticism about the real-world readiness of self-driving technology.
Under new guidelines that took effect early this year, Waymo is allowed to test driverless vehicles on "public roads, including freeways, highways and streets within the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale, in Santa Clara County," the state Department of Motor Vehicles said in a statement. Waymo, and its earlier Google incarnation, had been allowed to test self-driving vehicles on public roads since 2014, but with the new permit it can now test a fleet of about three dozen vehicles without human safety drivers at the wheel, the DMV said.
That Waymo is the first company to receive this particular approval is not surprising, given that it's been testing self-driving technology for nearly a decade and has logged more than 10 million miles with its expanding fleet on public roads. Some 60 other companies also have California permits to test autonomous vehicles, but still must have a human safety driver at the wheel.
Still, since the death of Elaine Herzberg, a pedestrian killed by a self-driving Uber test vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, in March, there's been a notable shift in public sentiment around the readiness of autonomous vehicle technology, and more critical coverage by Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Motor Trend and The Information in recent months about potential technical shortcomings. Consumer Watchdog, a safety-advocacy group in Los Angeles, criticized the DMV's move and asked that the company's application be made public.
“The DMV is letting Waymo turn all of us into human guinea pigs for testing their robot cars, without an adequate explanation of what’s going on,” John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy and Technology project director, said in an emailed statement. “The DMV is simply trusting Waymo – without any real verification – and is putting our safety at risk.”
To receive the new permit, the DMV said Waymo met safety, insurance and vehicle registration requirements, that included:
- Providing evidence of insurance or a bond equal to $5 million.
- Verifying vehicles are capable of operating without a driver and meet federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and is a SAE Level 4 or 5 vehicle.
- Confirming vehicles have been tested under controlled conditions that simulate the planned area of operation.
- Notifying local governments of planned testing in the area.
- Developing a Law Enforcement Interaction Plan that provides information to law enforcement and other first responders on how to interact with test vehicles.
- Continuously monitoring the status of test vehicles and providing two-way communication with any passengers.
- Training remote operators on the technology being tested.
“California has been working toward this milestone for several years, and we will continue to keep the public’s safety in mind as this technology evolves,” DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in the statement.
Waymo said in a blog post that safety is always its priority, including when it tests in bad weather and at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.
"Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit," the company said. "If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn't understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed. For our cars, that means following well-established protocols, which include contacting Waymo fleet and rider support for help in resolving the issue."
Although it's in the very early days of its autonomous ride service in Arizona, (where it's tested a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans without safety drivers since late 2017), Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat said the unit is already generating revenue.
"In the third quarter, as I think you know, we extended our Early Rider Program to a larger group and we moved into very early days of commercialization," Porat said during Alphabet's Oct. 25 conference call. "We do now have people paying for rides and we're also testing pricing models."
"And then on top of that, as we've talked about on prior calls, we've been developing the B2B opportunity," she said. "In Phoenix, as an example, we've been piloting with several partners who are sponsoring a service on behalf of their employees and customers. And again it's early days. So small revenues, but we're pleased to be testing this out as well, and then on top of that continuing to explore applying our technology for logistics and deliveries and for personal use vehicles and for last mile solutions for cities."
Waymo hasn't set a date for launching its robo-taxi service in the Bay Area, but the California permit is a necessary first step toward that goal.