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Waymo receives first permit to test fully driverless cars in California

Waymo’s plan for a robot-taxi service has just taken another big step forward after the company became the first in California to receive approval for testing fully driverless cars on the state’s roads.

It announced the news on Tuesday, October 30, after the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) gave it the green light to test its self-driving cars without the need for a safety driver.

In a blog post, the autonomous-car unit of Google parent Alphabet said it will start off by testing its vehicles in the streets around Mountain View, California, close to its headquarters.

“Waymo’s permit includes day and night testing on city streets, rural roads, and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour,” the team said in the post.

It added that its permit also allows for driving in fog and light rain, conditions that its autonomous cars can already comfortably handle.

In a bid to reassure local drivers that safety is its top priority, Waymo said that should one of its driverless vehicles come across a situation that it’s unable to comprehend, it will do “what any good driver would do: Come to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed. For our cars, that means following well-established protocols, which include contacting Waymo fleet and rider support for help in resolving the issue.”

Slow take-up

California already has more than 50 companies testing autonomous vehicles on its public roads, but at the current time, they all include safety drivers.

The state started accepting applications for fully driverless testing last April. But coming just a couple of weeks after a self-driving Uber car with a safety driver knocked down and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, applications got off to a slow start as companies opted to proceed with greater caution. However, having already launched fully driverless testing in Arizona, Waymo wasted little time in submitting its application when the opportunity presented itself.

With a growing number of companies vying to become the first to launch a full-fledged robot-taxi service, Waymo’s success in gaining a permit for testing cars without a safety driver in California is a promising development for the company. It’s also a clear sign from the authorities in California of its desire to stay at the forefront of autonomous-car development by paving the way for more advanced testing of the technology on its public roads.

The neighboring state of Arizona already allows testing sans safety driver, with Waymo, for example, offering driverless rides to the residents of Phoenix, where it plans to launch a robot-taxi service in the coming months. Last year it produced a video showing the reactions of passengers as its autonomous car — without anyone in the driving seat — automatically navigated the streets.

As for California, Waymo says that its first outings in cars without safety drivers will have employees in the passenger seats, but, just like in Phoenix, it plans to offer rides to members of the public before too long.

Waymo has so far driven 10 million autonomous miles and 7 billion simulated miles, and, in a statement of intent, earlier this year placed an order for more than 60,000 driverless minivans to add to its current fleet of several hundred vehicles.

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