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Waymo pausing some robotaxi service after safety drivers raise coronavirus concerns

Waymo pausing some robotaxi service after safety drivers raise coronavirus concerns


It will continue to run the smaller fully driverless trials, though

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Waymo is temporarily shutting down some of its robotaxi services in Arizona, just days after The Verge reported that its contracted safety drivers were becoming increasingly nervous about picking up passengers amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. Vehicles with safety drivers will no longer be on the roads in greater Phoenix, Arizona, while completely driverless versions will continue to shuttle passengers around in more limited numbers.

Waymo says it has stopped running its prototype autonomous vehicles in California, but will keep testing driverless trucks and operating its limited delivery service pilot program.

“In the interest of the health and safety of our riders and the entire Waymo community, we’re pausing our Waymo One service with trained drivers in Metro Phoenix for now as we continue to watch COVID-19 developments,” the company tweeted, referencing the disease that’s caused by the novel coronavirus.

Like most companies testing self-driving cars, Waymo staffs many of its prototype autonomous vehicles with so-called safety drivers, who are there in the event that the car encounters a driving situation that it can’t handle. These drivers are not full-time Waymo employees, though. They’re employed by a French transit company called Transdev.

As The Verge has previously reported, these Transdev employees have complained of poor health benefits and paltry paid leave policies — things that have only grown more important as the world comes to grips with a pandemic. Last week, while Waymo “strongly” encouraged full-time employees without “business critical” roles to work from home, the contract drivers were left feeling exposed.

“It feels like the drivers are treated like second class citizens, having to report to work and serve ‘hails’ while the full-time employees are required to work from home to stay safe,” one Waymo safety driver told The Verge.

At the time, the COO of Transdev Alternative Services said in an email to drivers that the “current situation [in Arizona] does not justify suspending the public-hailing service.”