Waymo gets permission to run cars without drivers in Silicon Valley

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True driverless cars – not just autonomous cars with “safety drivers” on stand-by – will be roaming through five Santa Clara County cities. On Tuesday, the California department of motor vehicles gave Waymo a permit to ”test driverless vehicles on public roads, including freeways, highways and streets within the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale".

Waymo is the Google spin-off that began stealth testing self-driving cars in Silicon Valley in 2009. It’s already been running driverless cars in Arizona for the past year.

(In case you’re wondering, no, it wasn’t Waymo that was involved in a fatal collision with a cyclist in Arizona in March – that was Uber. A Waymo van did crash into a Mountain View highway median in June after the safety driver fell asleep and disconnected the autopilot, but no one was hurt).

According to a Waymo blog post, the cars are allowed to run at freeway speeds…

Waymo’s [California] permit includes day and night testing on city streets, rural roads and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour. Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit. We will gradually begin driverless testing on city streets in a limited territory and, over time, expand the area that we drive in as we gain confidence and experience to expand.

If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed.

The cars will be linked to a command center where humans will monitor operations and resolve problems.

The permit allows Waymo to offer rides to the public for free; more California paperwork is needed if the company ever wants to start charging for it. “Early riders” in the Phoenix area began taking complimentary trips in April. In Santa Clara County, though, Waymo says it’ll just be employees getting rides for now, with public availability coming “eventually”.