What crash? Waymo to test autonomous cars without safety drivers

Waymo is vying to become the first company to put autonomous cars without safety drivers onto the streets of California.

An unnamed source at Waymo told the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, April 13 that it applied for a permit this month after the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) started inviting applications on April 2.

Waymo, the autonomous-car unit of Google parent Alphabet, is the second company to apply. The identity of the first hasn’t yet been made public.

While around 50 companies are currently testing autonomous cars on California roads, regulations have up to now required a safety driver to be behind the wheel at all times to monitor the vehicle’s progress.

So why have only two companies so far applied to test driverless cars without back-up drivers on the state’s public roads? Two recent high-profile crashes involving autonomous-car technology could have something to do with it, with companies opting to proceed with greater caution in light of public concern over the safety of the driverless systems.

The first incident involved a self-driving Uber car — with a safety driver — that knocked down and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona on March 18. The second occurred a short time later, on March 23, and saw a Tesla car crash in California while in semi-autonomous mode, resulting in the death of the driver.

If Waymo’s application is accepted, it will be allowed to use California’s public roads for testing without a safety driver, and could even use vehicles without a steering wheel, pedals, and mirrors. The Chronicle said in its report that the company is likely to conduct initial trials close to its Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, where it’s been busy testing a fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans with back-up drivers.

A DMV document states how tests without safety drivers will be conducted on California roads. Rules include the need for a constant communication link between the driverless car and a “remote operator” that gives real-time data on the vehicle’s status and position, and also the submission of a “law enforcement interaction plan” detailing how the company operating the car will deal with first responders if an incident occurs involving one of its cars.

California has been working hard to welcome technology companies and automakers to the state to test their self-driving systems, a reflection of its determination to be at the forefront of a potentially multi-billion-dollar industry.

Waymo became the first company in the U.S. to test self-driving cars without safety drivers when Arizona allowed for it toward the end of last year. You can watch passenger reactions to riding in the vehicles in this video.