UPDATE: Waymo gets approval to operate in L.A. County

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UPDATE 3/3/2024: Waymo has reportedly been granted permission to operate its autonomous taxis in L.A. County by the California Public Utilities Commission. 

Waymo has hit a speedbump.

The tech startup that began testing self-driving taxis in West Hollywood and portions of Los Angeles last fall had plans to expand its service area to include the entire metro area, but last week the state’s Public Utilities Commission put a hold on the move pending a review of the matter, in response to a request by L.A. Mayor Karen Bass.

Prior to the suspension, WEHOonline spoke with Waymo’s Chris Bonelli, product communications manager, and Lauren Schwendimann, head of UX design, who commented on the safety concerns.

“We have a tremendous safety record,” Schwendimann said. “We have one driver, the Waymo driver, that is the most experienced driver in the world, and it’s always getting smarter.”

Bonelli pointed to the few number of incidents relative to the 40+ million miles the vehicles have driven.

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“We’ve had no fatalities, and no severe injuries that I’m aware of, either,” Bonelli said. “Some very small scrapes or, a car hit us from the rear because we actually, believe it or not, came to a stop at a stop sign. And the person may have had some whiplash or something.”

“We are safer than a human driver by orders of magnitude,” he said. “Our safety record, in theory, gets better every day.”

On Feb. 8, a Waymo car struck a bicyclist in San Francisco, causing minor injuries. 

The company was accused by San Mateo Board of Supervisors Vice President David J. Canepa of impeding discussions on its plans to expand, and issues with communication have arisen before.

In January, WeHo Mayor John M. Erickson told NBC he was unaware of Waymo’s plans, even though the company claimed it had notified the city.

“I really want these organizations to reach out and come to the cities that they’re going to be driving in,” Erickson said. “We’re all trying to work together to monitor new technology as it comes into our community.” 

“So we’ve been driving in LA, doing testing before we opened up our tour last fall, for over a year, and before we did that, where we could, into as many as we could, we absolutely made that outreach,” Bonelli said. “Sometimes it gets to staff level versus getting to the actual mayor or, you know, whomever. There’s transportation committees, there’s all sorts of policy pieces. We make that a point before, during, and throughout the process of us starting to operate in a new city to make sure that we are engaging as many of those stakeholders as possible.”

In her interview with WEHOonline, Schwendimann discussed user feedback on Waymo’s autonomous vehicle technology. She noted users’ amazement at the technology, particularly the autonomous steering. The technology also offers users safety and privacy, allowing them to travel without concerns about others in the car, she said.

“(There is a) kind of peace of mind and security and safety that they feel when they get that car all to themselves, and they don’t have to worry about who’s in the car with them,” she said. “They don’t have to worry about how they present themselves. They can be themselves without judgment.”

Schwendimann discussed the challenges her team faces in integrating human-robot or human-AI interactions into daily transportation. She explained how designing for situations in which an autonomous vehicle must make decisions on where to pull over, read traffic, and adapt to environments presents significant hurdles. 

“For example, a car can pull over, and maybe it’s not perfectly perpendicular to the curve, so people might give feedback about that. Or like ‘I thought I was going to meet my car out in front, but it pulled over on a side street, why did it do that?’ Maybe there was a UPS car there when the car pulled up, and it didn’t feel like it could pull over, so it kind of chose the next best spot,” she said. 

Her team’s goal is to refine these interactions, ensuring that the vehicle’s decisions are transparent and comprehensible, thus smoothing out the dynamic interplay between humans and autonomous vehicles to enhance user experience and trust.

Expansion is very much at the top of Waymo leaders’ minds.

“We’d love to see Waymo in every city next year. I can’t say that’s what’s going to happen,” Schwendimann said. “What we’re looking to do is change the paradigm of transportation so that, it’s available to you when you want it, on your terms, and it feels safe, and it’s not only safer for you as someone getting around, but it’s safer for my whole city, for pedestrians, for cyclists, for the city. And we’re working hard toward that future. I think there’s a huge opportunity to not just replace the everyday ride-hail trips that people take on a Friday night, but to also help people reimagine how they can get from point A to point B, or reimagine their need for a second car. I’m not going to say that we’re going to wholly replace every car that exists in the world, but think of the convenience of having a fully electric car on demand when you want it, and when you need it, and then to not have to worry about the hassle of parking, of insurance, of the maintenance.”

So… why is there a steering wheel?

“There are federal and state regulations that currently require having a steering wheel and pedals,” Bonelli said. “Unless we were to submit and be approved for specific waivers to be allowed to operate without a steering wheel. Currently, we don’t have that. But the more basic answer truly is, in the very unlikely event that our vehicle has trouble, a human operator from our in-house roadside assistance team has to be able to approach the car, hop in, and drive it away as needed.”

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Edgar Iobst
Edgar Iobst
1 month ago

What information is available to demonstrate that Waymo has met the County and State-wide regulations regarding taxis? How do we know the $ Charged is correct? Taxis must be tested and certified as accurate before being hired.

Pedro Baptista
Pedro Baptista
1 month ago

Will it listen when I say pull into the HOV lane in the pouring rain at 65mph on the 405 to LAX?
Not sure we’re ready for this, but hey, use LA as your proving ground. What can go wrong?

Davedi
Davedi
1 month ago

The bigger problem is automation putting people out of work.

Cy Husain
1 month ago
Reply to  Davedi

The World Economic Forum estimates by 2025, technology (including automation, robotics and AI) will create at least 12 million MORE jobs than it destroys. The late economist Alan Krueger found evidence for automation’s wage-boosting abilities. The economic historian James Bessen found a pattern over the past two centuries, wages have risen tenfold owing to technological progress. With increased productivity from new technology, companies need increased demand for their very survival coming from higher wages & even Universal Basic Income.

C.R.
C.R.
1 month ago
Reply to  Davedi

So this had better at least mean significantly cheaper fares, seeing as how there’s no driver taking a percentage.

Cy Husain
1 month ago

Waymo and driverless cars in general have far more problems than admitted, driverless cars including Waymo’s disrupt traffic & emergency response, as well as robotaxi crashes, one dragged a pedestrian, woman was run over by self-driving car, and robotaxi crashed into a fire truck. This’s only a few & NOT all of the problems just in San Francisco in less than the last 6 months ❗ LA’s Mayor Karen Bass may have some very legitimate concerns. Our own experts (we do have them including PhDs) in AI & Robotics should be consulted.

Last edited 1 month ago by Cy Husain
Mike
Mike
1 month ago

Say No to death traps from google !

:dpb
:dpb
1 month ago

Just NO. Keep these driverless cars off our streets.

BloodshotEyedGuy
BloodshotEyedGuy
1 month ago

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?!? If you think we need driverless cars, you’re lazy and part of the problem. Uber is a horrible option too, but I’d still trust a shady stranger driving me anywhere over a driverless car. But if the driverless car makes me listen to crap music during the trip, it won’t get tipped either.

Jerome Cleary
Jerome Cleary
1 month ago

This is an odd response and statement by our Mayor John Erickson: “I really want these organizations to reach out and come to the cities that they’re going to be driving in,” Erickson said. “We’re all trying to work together to monitor new technology as it comes into our community.” But when the Bird and Lime scooters came to West Hollywood they never contacted anyone in our city or city hall but for some reason Mayor Erickson and Sepi Shyne had no concerns at all for the scooter companies not reaching out or contacting our city? And then Erickson and Shyne… Read more »

Joshua88
Joshua88
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerome Cleary

Gee, I would feel a whole lot safer on the road and in the car with a 16-year-old scooter driver, than a driverless automobile.
These are not comparable, Mr Cleary.

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