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Waymo will launch paid robotaxi service in Los Angeles on Wednesday


Tech startup Waymo said Tuesday that it would begin offering paid robotaxi rides in Los Angeles beginning Wednesday, as the nation’s experiment with self-driving car technology picks up steam. 

Waymo, a spinoff of Google, had announced plans for a service in Los Angeles in January as it sought state regulatory approval and local support. It’s been offering free “on tour” rides since, and last month it received regulatory approval for the expansion to a paid service, despite pushback from the Teamsters union and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. 

Waymo said Tuesday that more than 50,000 people were on its waitlist to use the service. The company did not say how many users it would allow to fully use the app starting Wednesday. Last month, the company said it was starting with a Los Angeles fleet of fewer than 50 cars covering a 63-square-mile area from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. Los Angeles County has a population of 9.7 million people. 

The service works similarly to other ride-hailing smartphone apps such as Flywheel, Lyft and Uber, except that Waymo’s vehicles have no human drivers present. Riders follow instructions on the app and through the vehicle’s sound system, though Waymo workers can assist remotely. 

Robotaxis are getting more buzz as the technology advances in fits and starts. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Friday that Tesla would reveal a robotaxi product in August, though he gave no details. Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary that paused its robotaxi service last year after one of its vehicles failed to detect a pedestrian underneath it, said Tuesday that it would reintroduce human-driven vehicles in select cities, including Phoenix, as a step back toward driverless operations. 

Various China-based tech startups are also testing self-driving cars on California roads, drawing scrutiny from lawmakers. 

But for now, Waymo’s only competition is traditional, human-driven car services. 

Waymo’s expansion to Los Angeles will bring autonomous for-profit taxis to the nation’s second-largest city — and to a city long synonymous with car travel. Waymo already operates commercial robotaxi services in San Francisco and Phoenix. 

Chris Ludwick, Waymo’s product management director, called the Los Angeles move a milestone. 

“The reception from Angelenos so far has been exceptional, and we look forward to welcoming more riders into our service over time,” he said in a statement. 

Waymo said it informed its test riders about the change Monday in an email, which someone also posted to Reddit. 

Robotaxis have faced criticism on multiple fronts, from the threat they pose to drivers’ jobs to the mistakes they’ve made blocking city buses or emergency vehicles. Under California law, driverless cars can’t be given traffic tickets, and they could make traffic congestion worse

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation said the Waymo expansion was happening too soon, without enough local oversight of autonomous vehicle operations, but in an order last month state officials said that those concerns were unfounded. 

Supporters of robotaxis have countered that human drivers have a terrible safety record, with traffic deaths topping 40,000 a year in the U.S. Waymo has not reported a death or serious injury from its technology, and Waymo vehicles appear to be generally more observant of traffic laws than human drivers are, according to journalists who have ridden in them. 

In San Francisco, the futuristic nature of driverless vehicles has become a tourist attraction. 

Opponents of autonomous taxi expansions, including the Teamsters, have vowed to slow down the growth of companies such as Waymo. A bill pending in the California Senate would give cities and counties authority over robotaxi services — a power that currently resides with state government agencies. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for next week. 


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