Waymo, which returned to Austin to test its self-driving technology earlier this year, is doubling down with plans to expand its ridehail services to Central Texas.
The company, which started as a project of Google before becoming a Google subsidiary known as Waymo in 2016, was one of the first companies to use Austin as the testing location for autonomous technology.
On Thursday, the company announced plans to make Austin the fourth city it will offer ridehail services but did not announce the specific timing for when it aims to offer public rides. Waymo already operates 24/7 ride-hail services in San Francisco and Phoenix, and also offers rideshare in Los Angeles under its Waymo One service.
Ridehail builds on Waymo’s existing and past Austin presence
Waymo first tested a fully self-driving vehicle on public streets in Austin in 2015, but later closed its Central Texas operations in 2019. In March the company returned to Austin to test its fifth generation Waymo Driver, an all-electric Jaguar I-Pace outfitted with the company’s latest sensor technology.
At the time, the company said it did not have any immediate plans to expand its ridehail services to Austin. Waymo also said in March it returned to Austin for testing because the downtown environment is similar to other dense urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix, where the company has been testing its technology, and will also help train its software to adapt to different driving environments and local driving conditions.
The company said this week it has been testing the vehicles in and around downtown in recent months to reacquaint the vehicles to the city. Now, the company is planning to begin an initial phase of fully autonomous operations in the fall, and aims to operate with no humans in the cars in the following months, with the first rideshare services to the public would come sometime after that.
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How will the ridehail work?
The company said it aims for Austin operations to be a useful service from the start with operations day and night in popular areas that include a “large portion” of the city. The company said rideshare will be able to be taken to locations, including downtown, Barton Hills, Riverside, East Austin, Hyde Park and more.
Waymo said in each new city it starts with a large service area where it can develop 24/7 rideshare services. Currently, its largest area is in the Phoenix metro area, with 255 square miles of service area. In Austin, the goal is to expand over time to connect more of the metro area.
In Austin, Waymo will offer services through its Waymo One app. The app works comparatively to other rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft and vehicles.
Riders can put their destination into Waymo’s app and the app will in turn select safe spots to pick up and drop off passengers. From there passengers will be able to unlock the vehicle’s door with the app, hit start ride and see their route. The vehicles can transport up to four passengers at a time.
The company did not disclose when the first public rides could be available, or when it aims deploy Waymo vehicles without humans behind the wheel.
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Other self-driving cars in Austin
Waymo isn’t the only self-driving vehicle on the road in Austin. The city has been a testbed of self-driving technology since Waymo first operated in the city, and currently is being used to test vehicles by Cruise and Volkswagen.
Under a state law that passed in 2017, autonomous vehicles can operate without a driver inside, and can be used on highways as long as they can follow traffic laws, have insurance like other cars and are equipped with video recording equipment. Manufacturers are also considered responsible for any collisions or broken traffic laws.
Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, has been testing its driverless car technology in Austin since last fall, and started offering rideshare to the public in December. The company’s cars drive and pick up passengers with no human in the driver’s seat. The company also announced in March during South by Southwest it would be testing a pedalless, driverless shuttle-like vehicle within a few weeks.
In July, Volkswagen said it would start testing a small fleet of autonomous electric “ID. Buzz” vehicles in Austin, as the company’s first autonomous driving test program in the United States. The vehicles are equipped with autonomous driving technology developed by VW and autonomous driving company Mobileye. The company plans to scale to ten vehicles in Austin by the end of the year.
Argo AI, a Ford subsidiary, also previously tested vehicles in Austin from 2019 to 2022. The company’s operations included rideshare and delivery partnerships with Lyft and Walmart, before it shut down.
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