Waymo says it will begin testing autonomous vehicles in Los Angeles with a goal of launching a robotaxi service in the city in the months ahead. This marks the third market Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving technology unit has targeted.
The company, which began 3-D mapping heavily trafficked areas of Los Angeles in 2019, is deploying a fleet of electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs this week outfitted with laser lidar units, cameras, radar and other sensors that initially will carry only Waymo employees, said Chief Product Officer Saswat Panigrahi. He declined to say how many vehicles will be used in the new program or when a paid ride service would be available to the general public.
“We are going into Los Angeles with the aim of running a 24/7, fully autonomous commercial ride-hailing service. That’s a commitment we have only made to two cities in the past: Phoenix and San Francisco,” Saswat said. From a technical standpoint, Waymo says moving to Los Angeles is a light lift given what it has in common with those two cities: urban density in San Francisco and higher-speed suburban roads in Phoenix.
The expansion into a third city comes as expectations for wide availability of self-driving vehicles grow more pessimistic. Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise, Ford’s Argo AI and Hyundai-backed Motional all operate autonomous vehicle programs in major U.S. cities though public access remains limited.
Waymo, which began as Google’s self-driving car project in 2009 and has raised about $3 billion in recent years to expand operations, has operated the Waymo One commercial service in the Phoenix area since 2020 but doesn’t yet do so in San Francisco. It also has a delivery service in Phoenix and is expanding autonomous truck operations in Texas through its Waymo Via unit. Cruise has launched a limited public service in San Francisco that’s mainly available at times when traffic is light.
“There’s no denying the fact that this is one of the largest technological challenges of our generation. There are very few things that compare to driving a robot at 45 miles per hour in the midst of complex, unpredictable traffic,” Saswat said.
The Los Angeles metro region, with about 13 million residents, is an appealing commercial opportunity as it’s the third-largest ride-hailing market in the U.S., representing potentially worth $2 billion in 2022.