Waymo robotaxis can hit California highways after state approval

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SAN FRANCISCO — California regulators on Friday granted Alphabet’s self-driving car division Waymo permission to expand its robotaxi service to include highways in several Bay Area cities and large swaths of Los Angeles, a massive expansion that comes amid concerns about the impact more driverless cars will have on city streets.

The decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) allows the company to deploy its robotaxis on local roads and freeways at speeds up to 65 mph. But Julia Ilina, a Waymo spokesperson, said in a statement that the company plans to take a “careful and incremental approach to expansion” and has “no immediate plans” to expand its robotaxi service to highways.

The ruling still marks a massive expansion for the company, which has been offering its 24/7 robotaxi service in San Francisco and Phoenix for months. The company is testing its cars on freeways in California with a safety driver behind the wheel, but in Phoenix, the tests have no human driver on highways, Ilina said. The company does not currently bring passengers on highways.

Friday’s decision follows sharp opposition from local officials — particularly in San Mateo and Los Angeles counties — who tried halting the expansion, arguing that they should have more power over how, and if, the technology is deployed on their streets. In a November letter to the state commission, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said she worried about the “adverse impacts” the expansion would have.

“In a city that spans 500 square miles, has a population of approximately 4 million people, and contains 7,500 miles of roadways, the risk is exponentially greater,” she wrote.

But the CPUC, which regulates the technology for the state, said in its decision that Waymo has “complied with the requirements” and may expand immediately. Despite the opposition, Waymo also received support from a range of groups in California — including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Bicycle Coalition.

“CalBike sees autonomous driving technology as an opportunity to improve roadways across California and nationwide,” the coalition said in a statement. “Waymo’s technology has the potential to create a safer roadway environment by removing human error and observing rules of the road — such as speed limits — which many human drivers fail to do.”

Still, the angst around driverless cars is likely to continue in California, where several incidents last month fed public officials’ safety concerns about the vehicles coming to their cities. For example, over several days in February, a Waymo vehicle smashed into a closing gate while exiting the University of Southern California’s campus, and the next day, another car collided with a cyclist in San Francisco.

Then, days later, the company announced a voluntary recall of its software for an incident involving a pickup truck in Phoenix.

None of the incidents resulted in major injuries.

Ilina said the company is “grateful to the CPUC for this vote of confidence in our operations.”

“We’re incredibly grateful for the riders and community partners who have supported our service to date — including +15,000 rides thus far in LA — and we’re looking forward to bringing the benefits of fully autonomous ride-hailing to more people,” she said.

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