Waymo, the company behind the autonomous automobile’s you’ve seen cautiously cruising up and down the streets of Santa Monica, has announced it will be advancing its testing to the next level, driving with no human so much as even sitting in the driver’s seat.

Up until now, the testing has been carried out with an Autonomous Specialist sitting in the driver’s seat, carefully watching every movement of the vehicle, with his or her hands resting only an inch or so away from the steering wheel at all times.

When this near-final phase of testing begins, it will be the first time any fully autonomous car has driven in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Formally known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, development began back in 2009 when the Waymo team — which is owned by the parent company of Google, Alphabet — was able to drive autonomously over 10 uninterrupted 100-mile routes in a significantly modified Toyota Prius.

Once the stuff of science fiction, these self-driving cars are becoming a common sight on our streets, they are also being tested in Koreatown, Downtown, the Miracle Mile, West Hollywood as well as the City of Santa Monica.

Waymo also announced that it had reached one million rider-only miles in January of this year. According to the San Francisco-based tech company, the milestone was achieved after ride-hailing operations began in 2019 in the East Valley region of the Phoenix metro area, followed by San Francisco in March 2022 and the area around downtown Phoenix in May 2022.

During this time, there were no reported injuries, no events involving vulnerable road users, and no intersection related events. There were 18 minor contact events that were too minor to meet the tow-away and police-report criteria, with 55 percent of those being the result of a human driver hitting a stationary Waymo vehicle. Every vehicle-to-vehicle event however, was the result of a human driver violating road rules and/or behaving dangerously.

Only two collisions were comparable to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Crash Investigation Sampling System, a nationally representative collision database of collisions that were police reported and in which at least one vehicle was towed.

“For autonomous driving technology to gain public acceptance, we work everyday to earn the trust of the public. We believe that transparency and accountability are paramount for AVs’ [autonomous vehicles] long-term success, and we’ll continue to share meaningful safety information, and encourage others to do the same,” Waymo said on its official blog.

The heavily modified “fifth generation” Jaguar I-Pace all-electric SUV features an extensive array of sensors and instruments, including LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. While the Waymo vehicles also incorporate cameras and radar, LiDAR offers a level of accuracy for 3D mapping at a resolution hundreds of times higher than radar and there are several of these mounted over the exterior in key positions.

Given the recent flurry of incidents involving Tesla and in particular its recent recall of nearly 363K vehicles with ‘Full Self-Driving’ to fix flaws in behavior, it’s no surprise that public opinion remains skeptical.

“I don’t even like Teslas, I don’t like the idea of an autopilot in a car, I think it’s creepy and weird. And, no I would never, ever have a robot drive for me. I don’t even like those things that deliver lunches. I like human contact and human interaction,” said Santa Monica resident Cindy Smith.


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Scott Snowden

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.