Waymo brings self-driving taxis to San Francisco – with a catch

A safety operator is seen in the front seat of a self-driving Waymo vehicle in San Francisco, California, on Aug 20, 2021. — Reuters

Alphabet Inc’s Waymo will offer rides in its autonomous vehicles to select passengers in San Francisco, marking its second launch of a taxi service and a hint of the company’s commercial ambitions.

Waymo began ferrying passengers last fall in suburban Phoenix in fully driverless cars – a landmark achievement for a technology that’s long been hyped in Silicon Valley and Detroit. The company said it has provided “tens of thousands” of rides there.

Unlike in Arizona, however, Waymo riders in San Francisco will have a safety driver behind the wheel, according to a company spokeswoman. San Francisco’s hilly, dense streets are notoriously difficult for autonomous cars. Waymo has been running its vehicles around the city since 2019, without passengers, to map and learn routes and traffic situations.

Long considered the technical leader in making self-driving cars, Waymo recently lost a number of executives. Some former staff complained about overly cautious management and long delays in progress. Waymo leaders have said they favor a safe approach.

In San Francisco, a select group – called “trusted testers” – can sign up with Waymo’s app to take rides in its electric Jaguar SUVs. “We’ll begin with an initial group and welcome more riders in the weeks to come,” Waymo said in a blog post. The company said passenger rides will be free, for an unspecified amount of time. The safety drivers will be vaccinated, and riders will be required to wear a mask.

San Francisco is one of the largest ride-hailing markets in the US and home to the two biggest players, Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc. Self-driving company Cruise, which has also been mapping the city’s streets, received regulatory approval this summer to offer rides in the area. Ford Motor Co said it’s teaming up with Lyft to provide robo taxis later this year.

In 2019, Waymo had announced a partnership with Lyft, but the companies haven’t shared any updates since. Waymo sued Uber for stealing trade secrets in 2017. – Bloomberg

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