California Approves Waymo Expansion to LA and Highways

SAN FRANCISCO — California regulators on Friday approved Alphabet's self-driving car division Waymo to expand its robotaxi service, a major expansion amid concerns about the impact of more driverless cars in several Bay Area cities and large parts of Los Angeles. On city streets.

A decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) allows the company to operate its robotaxis on local roads and freeways at speeds up to 65 mph. But Waymo spokeswoman Julia Ilina 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 marks yet another major expansion for the company, which has been offering 24/7 robotaxi service in San Francisco and Phoenix for months. The company has been testing its cars on freeways in California with a safety driver behind the wheel, but the Phoenix tests did not have a human driver on highways, Illina said. The company currently does not carry passengers on highways.

Friday's decision followed fierce opposition from local officials — particularly in San Mateo and Los Angeles counties — who tried to stop the expansion and argued that they should have more authority over how the technology is used on their streets. In a November letter to the state commission, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said she was concerned about the “adverse impacts” the expansion would have.

“In a city of 500 square miles, with about 4 million inhabitants, and 7,500 miles of roads, the danger is exponential,” he wrote.

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But the CPUC, which regulates the technology for the state, said in its decision that Waymo “has complied with the requirements” and could expand immediately. Despite the opposition, Waymo has received support from several 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 in California and across the country,” the coalition said in a statement. “Waymo's technology has the potential to eliminate human error and create a safer road environment by obeying the rules of the road — like speed limits — that many human drivers fail to follow.”

Still, anger over driverless cars may continue in California, with several incidents last month feeding public officials' safety concerns about the vehicles coming to their cities. For example, over several days in February, a Waymo vehicle crashed into a closing gate while exiting the University of Southern California campus, and the next day, another car hit a bicyclist in San Francisco.

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

No major injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

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

“We are incredibly grateful to the riders and community partners who have supported our service – including +15,000 rides in LA so far,” she said.

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