Waymo Enters San Francisco

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There are other big players in the autonomous driving world, and we’ve covered several of them quite a bit, but there are really two names that stand out above the rest — and they’re taking very different approaches. I’m talking about Waymo and Tesla, of course. Whether it’s planned or organically ironic, just after Tesla held its AI Day to show us the progress it’s making toward robotaxis, Waymo has expanded its legit, collecting-money-now robotaxi into San Francisco.

Waymo has been operating in the Phoenix area for a few years, but the long delay to other cities (as well as some quirks with the system) have made people wonder if the company can really make this work commercially at a decent scale. The expansion into San Francisco is an exciting step that I think will make many people look at Waymo a bit differently. It’s still not proof that Waymo can make money putting robotaxis in dozens or hundreds of cities — it’s just San Francisco — but this does provide a true boost of confidence.

Honestly, one of the first things that came to mind when watching the video above was, “I wonder when they will roll out in my part of Florida.” Florida is a top attraction for initial robotaxi service, after all. A subsequent thought was: “Will Waymo get to my metro area before Tesla has robotaxi servicerunning?” (I know — some readers think Tesla will never have robotaxi service. Others think it’s sacrilegious to consider the possibility that Tesla isn’t first.)

Happily, this San Francisco rollout also shows Waymo using the electric Jaguar I-PACEs, 100% electric vehicles Waymo committed to using in order to help cut emissions some years ago.

Waymo I-Pace
Credit: Waymo

“Now, for the first time, San Franciscans will be able to hail an autonomous ride in one of our all-electric Jaguar I-PACE vehicles equipped with the fifth-generation Waymo Driver,” Waymo writes. “While this is a first for San Francisco, it is a familiar step for Waymo. Over the past four years in Metro Phoenix, we’ve gone from welcoming our first riders in 2017 with an autonomous specialist on board, to launching the first public, fully autonomous ride hailing service. Since October 2020, we’ve served tens of thousands of fully autonomous rides, and through our years of experience, have refined our incremental approach guided by our safety framework and rider feedback.”

Waymo is first providing this system to a limited group of “Trusted Testers.” We’ll have to wait to see when broader commercial service rolls out.

“We’re beginning our Trusted Tester program with riders of all different mobility levels, and those who require a wheelchair accessible vehicle can hail directly from the Waymo One app and provide critical feedback on their experience as well.”

Waymo does also point out its deep history with San Francisco. “We’ve been driving in the city for over twelve years, have accumulated more autonomous driving miles in California than anyone in the industry, and began ramping up our testing by offering autonomous rides to our employees in San Francisco earlier this year.” I recall seeing a Google self-driving Lexus on the roads in Mountain View back in 2007! This is a long project coming to fruition with true robotaxis at last. Here are a few more comments from Waymo on its system:

“And because our software fuses the outputs of our radar, lidar, and camera sensors together, our machine learning models can reason more intelligently about the world. If our cameras detect a stop sign, our lidar can help the Waymo Driver work out whether it’s a reflection in a West Portal storefront.

“Our powerful onboard compute platform allows the Waymo Driver to process vast amounts of data and run real-time inference on large Machine Learning (ML) models to react immediately without additional human input, like when an emergency vehicle is approaching, or when a dog runs out into the street. Our vehicles also don’t need a cell signal to operate — the Waymo Driver knows what to do even if it’s in the Broadway Tunnel. …

“Every major part of our software, whether it’s perception, semantic understanding, behavior prediction, or planning, leverages advanced machine learning models that benefit from our unparalleled driving experience and the richness of the data our sensors gather. Our driving software is based on years of AI research, and we’re contributing to the research community through our Waymo Open Dataset initiative, which we are constantly expanding to include new data and new challenges in several key areas of research from perception, to prediction, to domain adaptation. We’re continuously innovating and pushing the boundaries of state-of-the art AI research and bringing those advances into our production stack, which has allowed us to build the industry’s most advanced ML models to handle the complexities of urban driving.”

Additionally, here’s more on some of the specifics of San Francisco driving that the company has learned: “Similarly, our machine learning models have observed and learned countless other small nuances that help us drive like locals. Through our experience of driving in San Francisco, for example, the Waymo Driver has learned that residents often drive slightly slower while traveling up steep slopes. Therefore, based on its experience and depending on the speed and flow of traffic, the Waymo Driver does, too, to provide San Franciscans with a familiar and comfortable experience navigating the city’s many hills.”

You can learn more about Waymo’s system and what it’s been rolling out recently here.

I’ll just add a few final comments on the frequent conversation about Tesla’s approach versus Waymo’s approach. One thing is obvious: both systems keep improving. Learning is built into the systems, and the learning keeps getting better. Clearly, they have taken different technological approaches, with Tesla ditching all sensors except cameras and Waymo using cameras, lidar, and radar — and both companies eagerly highlight these differences. While Tesla is still striving to make it possible for a car to completely drive itself, Waymo clearly has completely self-driving cars on the road in Phoenix and now San Francisco. Whether Tesla can get robotaxis out there is one matter, while another is cost. At the end of the day decade, a big factor the determines who is winning in this potentially massive new industry is cost. How will both systems scale up, and how much will that cost, and in the end, what will the cost per mile/km be? I think that will be the big question in 2023, 2024, 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028, 2029, 2030, etc. And the answer to the last part will change a lot over time. Whether or not the company with the lowest cost changes back and forth, we’ll see!

What do you think of Waymo? Drop us a note down below if you care to chime in.

Oh yeah, also note that Waymo is also looking for more top-level engineers, researchers, and critical thinkers: waymo.com/careers

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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