Waymo is bringing its Waymo One robotaxi service to Los Angeles, a city of endless freeways, legendary traffic jams, and many pressing transportation needs that are unlikely to be addressed by adding more cars.
Waymo currently operates robotaxis in two cities: Phoenix and San Francisco. The company is one of a handful trying to launch a widescale commercial service built around autonomous vehicles, like Amazon’s Zoox, Argo AI (which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen), and Cruise (which is backed by General Motors and Honda).
LA isn’t uncharted territory for Waymo; the company has been mapping the city’s various neighborhoods, including downtown LA and the Miracle Mile, since 2019 — though it says it has yet to drive autonomously in the city. When it launches, Waymo expects to operate in those neighborhoods in addition to Koreatown, Santa Monica, Westwood, and West Hollywood.
LA isn’t uncharted territory for Waymo
As for when that will be, a spokesperson declined to say, noting that it would likely take “months” before residents would be able to hail one of Waymo’s autonomous vehicles through the company’s smartphone app.
Waymo says it will follow its traditional playbook of deploying its vehicles in autonomous mode with a human safety driver behind the wheel before transitioning into a commercially available service. To start out, those vehicles will only be available to Waymo employees and later to members of the public once the company is convinced they can operate safely and effectively.
When it gets there, Waymo’s robotaxi service will look similar to what’s currently available in San Francisco and Phoenix, which the company touts as involving “no NDAs, remote operators or pre-defined pick-ups.”
“No NDAs, remote operators or pre-defined pick-ups”
In other words, the service will eventually grow to include regular customers who are free to speak publicly (and post on social media) about their experiences using Waymo’s autonomous vehicles — just as they do in the suburban towns outside of Phoenix. That can result in some embarrassing headlines, such as when a driverless Waymo van got stuck at an intersection in Chandler, prompting the company to send a roadside assistance team to come extract it.
San Francisco residents have also witnessed some confusing behavior from Waymo’s vehicles, like when dozens of the company’s AVs kept getting stuck at the end of a dead-end street in the Richmond district last year.
For Waymo, LA represents its biggest and possibly most challenging market to date: a metropolitan area of 13 million people that Waymo describes as rife with “roads that include criss-crossing freeway ramps, narrow surface streets, [a] high number of unprotected left turns, blinding sunsets down its east-west roads, and distracted drivers.”
As a moneymaking operation, LA represents “an estimated market opportunity of $2 billion in 2022,” Waymo notes. The company has revenue coming in from its two ride-hailing markets, but it hasn’t raised any external financing since a $2.5 billion round in June 2021.
Under California state law, AV companies need to obtain a permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles in order to test self-driving vehicles on public roads. After that, all they need to do to start testing in a city is inform the appropriate local authorities. Cities then would have to negotiate specific agreements, such as data sharing, on a case-by-case basis.
Waymo has been testing AVs in and around Silicon Valley for over a decade, dating back to when it was still just a quirky project inside Google’s X division. In 2017, the company launched a limited ridehail service outside of Phoenix, which eventually grew to include over 300 vehicles.
Waymo has been testing AVs in and around Silicon Valley for over a decade
That’s how things stayed for several years, with Waymo meticulously focusing its efforts on a small service area in Arizona. Eventually, the company expanded its testing near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View to include the dense, complex streets of San Francisco.
And soon, it will grow again to include LA. Waymo won’t comment on where it will go after that. The company has tested or is currently testing its vehicles in Michigan, Texas, Washington state, and New York City.
Of course, many residents believe that LA doesn’t need more cars. Congestion in the city is arguably worse than ever, pedestrian deaths are on the rise, and the city’s leaders have done little to stem the chaos. Waymo says its cars are safer, but they’re still cars that occupy the same amount of space as human-driven vehicles.
Waymo isn’t the only AV company with its vehicles prowling the streets of LA. Motional, a joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv, is also testing its vehicles in the city, primarily in Santa Monica, for future robotaxi and delivery services.