Waymo will bring autonomous taxis to Los Angeles: its biggest challenge yet

Paid autonomous vehicle services are coming to Los Angeles, thanks to a decision by California regulators today to allow Alphabet subsidiary Waymo to operate in the city. Under the new ruling, Waymo will also be allowed to launch services in much of the San Francisco Peninsula.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s decision will likely prove controversial. It comes amid protests from local governments and agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the City of South San Francisco and the County of San Mateo. All argued that local government and citizens should have more input and oversight into the expanded autonomous taxi service.

But California laws allow state regulators, not local ones, to make decisions about where and how self-driving vehicles can operate in the state — a fact the CPUC cited in today’s decision.

In a written statement, Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina said the company will “take a careful and incremental approach to the expansion by continuing to work closely with city officials, local communities and our partners.” She noted that CPUC has received 81 letters from individuals and organizations supporting Waymo’s expansions, including groups representing people with disabilities and business interests.

Ilina said the company will take a “step-by-step approach” to introducing services in LA, and has “no immediate plans” to expand its commercial services to the San Francisco Peninsula.

The decision presents Waymo with what could be its biggest challenge yet: providing service in the second-largest U.S. city by population, closely watched by government officials who have been skeptical of its technology from the start. Last fall, LA Mayor Karen Bass wrote to California regulators to argue that her city has the technical knowledge and capacity to determine how and where self-driving cars should operate within its borders. Citing the initial problems of robotaxi companies operating on the streets of San Francisco, she argued that city officials were best positioned to “maximize the benefits of new transportation technologies and limit harm in our diverse communities.”

The California Legislature is considering several bills that would give local lawmakers more oversight of autonomous vehicle technology.

Waymo currently operates a paid taxi service in the city of San Francisco and in metro Phoenix, Arizona. The company has been operating a pilot service in parts of Los Angeles since the fall. Waymo also announced that it plans to launch services in Austin, Texas.

The company’s original LA service area includes much of the city, from the Pacific Palisades to the west, Hollywood to the north, East Los Angeles to the east and Gardena and Compton to the south. In the San Francisco Bay Area, passengers can now take robotaxi rides between San Francisco and Sunnyvale, bordered by Interstate 280 to the west.

Developers of autonomous vehicles have had a difficult few months. After Waymo and General Motors subsidiary Cruise were allowed to collect passenger fares in San Francisco last summer, both companies were involved in high-profile crashes. In one incident, a cruise vehicle collided with a fire truck after it failed to yield to the vehicle at an intersection. Two months later, Cruise’s license to operate in California was revoked after government officials alleged the company had not been open about the details of a collision that seriously injured a pedestrian. Cruise has since halted testing nationwide, fired nearly a quarter of its employees and replaced nearly all of its executive managers. Another company, Motional, said it would lay off 5 percent of its workforce this week after a major advocate said it would cut its funding.

But in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, at least, the future of driverless technology looks bright: Waymo could start its own driverless passenger service in the expanded area “starting today,” the CPUC wrote.

Updated: 3/11/2024, 7:38 PM EST: This story has been updated with further comment from Waymo.

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