Waymo will expand robotaxi operations to LA next

Google’s Waymo driverless ride-hailing service is expanding operations to Los Angeles, California.

Waymo has not yet specified a timeline for when the rides will start – just that Los Angeles will be next in line.

It’s a major announcement, given the size and scope of LA driving, which is more complex than both Phoenix and San Francisco.

Waymo operates a fleet of self-driving electric Jaguar I-PACE vehicles – these currently serve the public in Phoenix, Arizona, and are being tested by employees in San Francisco, California. These vehicles have no driver, whether in the vehicle or remotely – they run purely on sensors and can be used by the public in Phoenix with no NDAs or predefined pickups through the Waymo One app. The company currently has some “Trusted Testers” in San Francisco: nonemployees who can ride along in a self-driving car with a Waymo operator in the driver’s seat.

Phoenix was Waymo’s first area, which is marked by mostly wide, flat streets in a grid configuration and isn’t nearly as choked by traffic as California’s major cities. Moving to San Francisco upped complexity a lot – the city is quite difficult to drive in, but at least it’s small, which means everything can be mapped out ahead of time so the vehicles have an easier time navigating.

Waymo’s public Phoenix coverage area is about a hundred square miles. The company is also testing in downtown Phoenix, including rides to the Sky Harbor airport. In San Francisco, the coverage area is smaller, as the city itself is only 7-by-7 miles.

Interestingly, the press release quotes the population of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, which has 13 million residents and covers an area far larger than any of their previous service areas by population, area, and complexity.

The LA metro area is commonly considered to run all the way from Thousand Oaks to San Clemente and sometimes includes Riverside as well. But, Waymo also quoted Holly Mitchell, an LA supervisor for District 2, which mostly covers South Central, the West side and beach cities (here’s an LA district map) and is a couple hundred square miles. It notably excludes downtown – a more complex area, which Waymo was also later to address in both SF and Phoenix. So we’d bet that Waymo will mostly cover this area first.

Compared to SF and Phoenix streets, Los Angeles is the worst of both worlds – a huge, sprawling metropolis with lots of distance to cover and often-poor road quality, tons of traffic, and complex roads. It’s easier to drive in than San Francisco (in this writer’s opinion), but it offers more varied terrain and road conditions across a much wider area. Waymo mentions some of these difficulties in their press release:

We’ve also autonomously driven millions of miles on freeways, giving us a head start handling some of Los Angeles’s most challenging roads. Roads that include criss-crossing freeway ramps, narrow surface streets, high numbers of unprotected left turns, blinding sunsets down its east-west roads, and distracted drivers.

Currently, Waymo’s rides are still free to the public in Phoenix, unlike competitor GM Cruise which started charging for some rides in San Francisco earlier this year. Waymo also has permission to start charging for rides in San Francisco but hasn’t done so yet, as it’s not yet open to the public in that area. Waymo says that the potential commercial opportunity in the LA market is as big as a dozen smaller US cities combined, due to its population, size, and car-centric nature.

We’re sure the first rides in LA won’t be charged for as Waymo tests its program. In San Francisco, it has only allowed employee travel since it started operations in March, but that is convenient since the company is headquartered there. There may not be enough LA-based employees to allow for this restriction, so Google might start off with “Trusted Tester” and public rides sooner than they did in SF (or maybe that’s wishful thinking – I’d love to use this service).

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for electrek.co since 2016.

You can contact him at jamie@electrek.co