SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Alphabet, Google's parent company, announced Wednesday its Waymo self-driving ride-hailing service will begin transporting employees to destinations within San Francisco without human backup drivers.
The Silicon Valley tech giant said the employees would be transported in electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs. Previously the company had been testing the vehicles with a safety driver behind the wheel just in case.
"It's a natural progression and we're only going to see more competition in this space over time," Billy Riggs, a professor with the University of San Francisco, told KPIX 5.
Waymo didn't elaborate on when it might offer autonomous rides to the public in San Francisco. The company has been using autonomous minivans without human backups to carry passengers in the East Valley of the Phoenix metro area since 2020.
After early fits and starts where driverless AI technology struggled to recognize humans, these versions were good enough to get testing permits form the Department of Motor Vehicles and California Public Utilities Commission.
"In terms of the image recognition technology - the technology has evolved substantially in the ability to differentiate, not only between different types of pedestrians - whether it's an elderly individual or someone that actually has reduced mobility but also — to able to identify cyclists," Riggs told KPIX 5.
It doesn't mean the technology is perfect yet. KPIX 5 Da Lin captured video of a Cruise vehicle suffering a glitch in San Francisco over the weekend, causing a traffic backup before finally taking off.
Moments like these are giving some San Franciscans pause about being part of a live action beta test.
"That's gonna make me look at both sides of the street a lot more, I think," said pedestrian Sarah Marinek.
"I'm not confident. The reason I have a lack of confidence is because if my GPS doesn't work on my application delivering food – it has taken me to the wrong address three times today. Four times yesterday. And this worries me," said bike delivery messenger Jason Dearrigunaga.
KPIX 5 cameras didn't spot any Waymo's with empty driver seats on Wednesday.
Brian Cooley from CNET told KPIX 5 that companies like Waymo and Cruise aren't blindly sending these driverless cars into the streets.
"These are not companies that like to take risks and go out and get ugly headlines and massive lawsuits. When you see companies like General Motors/Cruise or you see Waymo, you see Uber putting these things on the road - their legal teams have taken a hard look at it and should reflect more or less ready for this stage if not full deployment," Cooley said.
Waymo also announced Wednesday that soon it will expand driverless rides to Downtown Phoenix. The program will start by carrying Waymo employees with safety drivers in the vehicles, with a goal of opening those rides to residents who join a "trusted tester" program soon after. No date was given for when the humans would be pulled from the vehicles.
The testing in San Francisco comes as competitor Cruise LLC, a General Motors subsidiary, is seeking a permit to charge for fully autonomous rides in the city. Cruise is operating a small fleet of autonomous vehicles that it opened to the general public at the beginning of February. GM expects to get a permit to charge passengers for autonomous rides this year.
Andria Borba contributed to this report.
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