Alphabet's Waymo to offer driverless rides in San Francisco

Self-driving car unit of Google's parent company will also expand its Waymo One service in Arizona

Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicles at Waymo's operations centre in San Francisco. Reuters

Waymo, the self-driving car arm of Google's parent company Alphabet, will begin to offer driverless rides in San Francisco as it tries to match General Motors.

The company said that it started the service by using a fully-autonomous, all-electric Jaguar I-Pace, with no driver behind the wheel, to pick up a Waymo engineer "to get their morning coffee and go to work", it said in a blog post on its website.

California-based Waymo said on March 21 – six months since it started offering rides to San Franciscans as their first "trusted testers" – that it was ready to take the next steps and begin testing fully autonomous operations in the city. The company is going going head-to-head with GM's autonomous unit Cruise, which announced its own driverless rides last month.

“We’ve learnt so much from our San Francisco trusted testers over the last six months, not to mention the innumerable lessons from our riders in the years since launching our fully autonomous service in the East Valley of Phoenix," Tekedra Mawakana, co-chief executive of Waymo, said in the post.

"Both of which have directly impacted how we bring forward our service as we welcome our first employee riders in San Francisco.”

Competition to offer driverless services as part of the next generation of transport is picking up. The autonomous car market was valued at $22.22 billion in 2021 and is projected to hit $75.95bn by 2027, according to Mordor Intelligence. North America is the biggest market, while the Asia-Pacific is the fastest in terms of growth.

Overall, the global autonomous car market could be worth about $2 trillion a year by 2030, analysts at UBS said.

Waymo has been testing its driverless technology in the San Franciso Bay Area – a city with challenging traffic conditions – along with rivals Cruise and Amazon's Zoox, over the past four to six years.

The companies have used vehicles customised with sensor technologies including Lidar – light detection and ranging – to detect people, other vehicles and road obstacles.

Safety and potential accidents, however, are still very much a concern. Waymo itself was embroiled in an accident when one of its I-Paces struck a pedestrian in San Francisco in December, causing injuries. In June, one of its cars hit a scooter in the city, but no injuries were reported.

A month before that, a car from Tesla, the world's biggest electric vehicle manufacturer, crashed and burst into flames in Houston while the car was driving on its Autopilot system, killing two people aboard it.

Waymo, however, pledged that it was taking steps to avoid accidents with its technology that is backed by "millions of miles of real-world driving and boosted by billions of miles driven in simulation", its co-chief executive Dmitri Dolgov said.

We’ve learned so much from our San Francisco trusted testers over the last six months, not to mention the innumerable lessons from our riders in the years since launching our fully autonomous service in the East Valley of Phoenix
Tekedra Mawakana, co-chief executive of Waymo

"These important steps all help bring us closer to our mission of making it safer and easier for people and things to get where they’re going," Waymo added.

Waymo already offers autonomous rides in the East Valley of Phoenix, Arizona, with its Waymo One platform. This began with an early rider programme in 2017, followed by introducing fully-autonomous public rides in 2020. It claims to be serving hundreds of rides weekly with the app-based service, which it said will be expanded to downtown Phoenix.

"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 programme soon after," Waymo said in the blog.

Cruise, meanwhile, said earlier this month that it was investing another $3.45 billion in the unit after SoftBank Group's Vision Fund exited its bet on the subsidiary backed by GM and Honda Motor. A year ago, it announced that it would launch its first international robotaxi service outside the US in Dubai in 2023.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 8:29 AM