Self-driving cars have been navigating local streets for years, but up to this point they have been required to always have someone sitting in the driver's seat to take control if the autopilot system were to fail.
That rule changed this month. Starting on April 2, the California Department of Motor Vehicles began a new testing phase for companies to operate their autonomous vehicles independently. These cars would still need to be tracked remotely, but a human would no longer need to be physically sitting in the driver's seat.
Waymo confirmed last week they have applied for this new round of driverless testing. A copy of the company's submitted application was provided to the Voice on Tuesday, April 17.
During this new testing phase, Waymo officials said they may allow regular citizens to take a free ride in their self-driving vehicles. But they gave no specifics on how this service would function or how interested riders could sign up.
As the technology matures, autonomous vehicles are expected to have huge ramifications for public transportation, safety and municipal planning. For better or worse, the city of Mountain View seems to be destined to serve as the main proving grounds for these impacts, city officials say.
There are over 50 companies registered in California to develop self-driving technology, 19 of which are based in Mountain View. Of those firms, Waymo is generally considered to be at the forefront of bringing autonomous vehicles to the consumer market. After nearly a decade of testing, the company has logged more than 5 million miles, which has provided a huge trove of data. In their materials, Waymo officials boast that anything they learn from one vehicle trip can quickly be applied to their entire fleet.
Given the stakes for local residents, city officials have been making a concerted effort to learn more about Waymo's plans. A city delegation visited Waymo's headquarters off Mayfield Avenue earlier this month, and the company's representatives pledged they would engage the community, City Manager Dan Rich said. Waymo officials promised they would schedule some type of public meeting in the near future to discuss their program and hear any community concerns.
"We emphasized to them that it's important to be transparent and to have the community involved in the process," Rich said. "That's what I intend to hold them accountable to."
Yet, Rich acknowledged the city doesn't have much formal authority to regulate self-driving cars since that is controlled by the DMV. Mountain View city officials could file a complaint if things got really bad, but couldn't prohibit self-driving cars from operating on public streets, he said.
The application says the company plans to roll out 52 Chrysler Pacifica minivans in this new round of driverless testing. Each vehicle will be insured for up to $10 million in personal injury claims.
These vehicles will be "geofenced" to travel only within the boundaries of Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Los Altos. Passengers would be blocked from selecting any destination outside of this area.
Each vehicle will be remotely monitored by two separate teams of Waymo technicians at all times, the application says.
During this test phase, the vehicles' speed will be capped at 65 miles per hour, depending on the posted speed limit. The cars will be allowed to drive on pretty much any public road, including freeways and parking lots.
According to its filings, Waymo is requesting to operate its vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bad weather may be the only limiting factor for putting the vehicles on the road — Waymo officials said they would not send out their vehicles in heavy rain or other bad conditions.
Driverless testing is a big step for California, but other states are already allowing it on public streets. Waymo currently operates fully driverless testing in Arizona using a similar geofence system that controls where the vehicles can travel.
It remains unclear when exactly the new testing phase would begin. DMV officials are in the middle of a 10-day review period to check Waymo's application for completeness. If the request is approved, the company can start whenever its team sees fit.
The company will also need to provide a procedure plan for how local police can interact with the vehicles. Waymo indicated it would provide those details in a future addendum.
Based on his meeting with Waymo, Mayor Lenny Siegel said it was his impression that driverless testing would begin in the next several months.
Waymo is now the second company to apply for permission in California to test autonomous vehicles without drivers present. DMV officials received one prior application from an unidentified company, but deemed it incomplete.
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