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Waymo expands to San Francisco with public self-driving test [Update]

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Waymo's 5th-generation cars, based on the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace.
Enlarge / Waymo’s 5th-generation cars, based on the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace.

Waymo

Waymo is finally thinking about expanding. The Alphabet self-driving car division has been running an impressive self-driving ride-hailing service for almost a year now, but only in a small suburb outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Now, the company is expanding commercial service to San Francisco, starting with a “trusted tester” rollout. Members of the public willing to sign up for the confidential testing program will soon be able to flag down a Waymo in the city via the app.

Google says the “Trusted Tester” program is “a confidential research program within Waymo One, where select riders will have access to our autonomous ride-hailing service and can share their experiences directly with our team to help shape the future of autonomous driving.” During the San Francisco testing program, vehicles will require safety drivers who are ready to intervene if something goes wrong. Metro Phoenix Waymo rides no longer require safety drivers.

The San Francisco expansion will also mark the commercial rollout of the Jaguar I-Pace Waymo cars. Phoenix uses Chrysler Pacifica minivans for its commercial Waymo service, chosen because they could automatically close the sliding doors. Waymo originally theorized that if someone exited a Waymo vehicle and didn’t close the door, the car would be stranded, so the company chose minivans with electric doors. That’s apparently not a concern now.

The I-Pace sensor layout.
Enlarge / The I-Pace sensor layout. “Vision” in this graphic means “camera.”

Waymo

Waymo hardware (the sensors, not the car) is made entirely in-house now, and these I-Pace cars being used in San Francisco represent the next-generation Waymo releases in hardware and software. The cars are essentially products that Waymo is iterating on, and the “5th-generation Waymo Driver” features a “completely redesigned” hardware sensor suite combining lidar, radar, and cameras for better detection of the surrounding area.

The roof of the car houses a 360-degree lidar and 360-degree camera system, along with a forward-looking “long-range” camera and radar. Then there’s the “perimeter” detection system, which puts lidar and cameras above the front and back license plates, cameras and radar on each back corner of the car, and three sensors—lidar, cameras, and radar—just above the front wheel wells for evaluating cross-road traffic. Waymo says the new sensor suite can “identify important details like pedestrians and stop signs greater than 500 meters away.”

In addition to its new sensor suite, the Jaguar I-Pace is an all-electric car, so this is the greenest Waymo vehicle ever (the Pacificas were hybrids). Waymo says the 5th-gen cars will “enable the scaled deployment of the Waymo Driver,” and the company is confident enough in that statement that it ordered 20,000 vehicles from Jaguar.

Waymo's Trusted Tester territory.
Enlarge / Waymo’s Trusted Tester territory.

Waymo

Waymo has been testing these 5th-gen cars in San Francisco for a few months now, allowing Waymo employees to use the new cars in San Francisco since February. This will mark the first time members of the general public will be able to use the service in San Francisco—and the first time I-Paces have taken customers. Riders in the testing program will be able to hail a cab from the Waymo One app; it will work just like Uber, except for being limited to the service area.

A much bigger deal than the size of the service area is the fact that Waymo is moving from a sleepy, flat suburban town to the hustle and bustle of a big, hilly city, a move that should provide valuable experience for the company.

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