Brace Yourselves: Google Got a California Permit to Start Testing Autonomous Cars Without a Safety Driver

Waymo’s Chrysler minivans ready to go
Waymo’s Chrysler minivans ready to go
Photo: Waymo

Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, announced on Tuesday that it’d secured the first permit in California to launch fully-autonomous cars with no safety driver onto public streets. Brace yourselves.

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Waymo’s permit is months in the making, after California regulators implemented a new set of regulations for self-driving car companies in April to facilitate the deployment of absolutely driverless cars. Only one other company has applied for a permit besides Waymo, Jalopnik previously reported.

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The idea of a car tooling around without a driver at the wheel surely makes some of you uneasy, particularly those of you living in Northern California, I imagine. It’s all somewhat worrying as the majority of autonomous car tests today feature a safety driver at the wheel, ready to assume control in the event something goes haywire. (And things still go wrong.)

But we shouldn’t forget that Waymo has already been shuttling hand-picked passengers around the Phoenix area for months now, ahead of a planned launch of a commercial service, and it just reported netting 10 million miles on the road with its fleet.

It’s no stranger to California, either. Waymo has been testing self-driving car technology in the state since 2009, and early on, the company’s test cars will be driving in a small area near its parent company’s headquarters in the city of Mountain View.

Illustration for article titled Brace Yourselves: Google Got a California Permit to Start Testing Autonomous Cars Without a Safety Driver
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And as it’s stipulated by the new California DMV regulations, Waymo will notify new communities that get roped into its testing area, as it expands, according to a blog post from the company posted on Tuesday.

Waymo said its permit allows for testing during the day and night, on city streets, rural roads, and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 mph.

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Eventually, the company said it hopes to expand the ridership to include actual, sentient humans who can sit in a car alone, while the car drives itself. The company’s tech has been called into question recently as to whether it’s ready for the primetime, but the California permit is a small, baby step along the way toward the incredible challenge of perfecting autonomous technology for the road. One without any drivers other than the car itself.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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DISCUSSION

If the permitted area includes roads that go past schools, even I, Mild-Mannered Suburban Dad, would raise a stink at city council meetings, school board meetings, whatever, if I still lived in the South Bay. The thought of a 3000 pound vehicle conducting beta testing where little kids are sure to be present in large numbers ticks the “socially and corporately irresponsible” boxes for me.

Edit: looking at the map a little more, I know for a fact that area includes a ton of schools of all types. I went to several of them, once upon a time. It’s one thing to have an unattended Waymomobile clunk into another moving or stationary car. It’s quite another to have a “whoopsie ... better fix that algorithm!” with a child on foot or on a bicycle, and there are thousands of schoolkids darting around all over the permitted area in the morning and afternoon. This seems irredeemably reckless.