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Why Waymo’s Robotaxis Are Avoiding Freeways, Airport

The company has state approval to expand use of its driverless taxis outside San Francisco but caution and permitting are keeping it off freeways and away from San Francisco International Airport for now.

On a city street, a woman and child prepare to enter a Waymo four-door Jaguar vehicle.
Waymo's autonomous Jaguar I-PACE has been part of testing in San Francisco, Calif.
Image Courtesy of Waymo
Waymo scored a huge milestone this month after state regulators approved the company’s request to expand the use of its driverless robotaxis beyond San Francisco.

The expansion gives the Alphabet-owned company the ability to deploy an unlimited number of robotaxis in 22 cities on the Peninsula, as well as a large swath of Los Angeles. Waymo’s robotaxis are also now allowed to carry passengers on local roads and freeways at speeds of up to 65 mph.

The expansion approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates robotaxi services in the state, also brought Waymo closer to its goal of taking passengers to San Francisco International Airport.

But, even with its expanded authority, don’t expect to see Waymo robotaxis ride-hailing on freeways or at SFO anytime soon.

Here’s what we know:


Waymo spokesperson Julia Ilina told the Chronicle in an email that the company has “no immediate plans to expand our commercial service into the San Francisco Peninsula.”

“We will take a careful and incremental approach to expansion by continuing to work with city officials and communities before we open any service to the public,” Ilina said.

Waymo’s approved service area marks a significant expansion in the region that now includes territory from San Francisco to Sunnyvale, east of Interstate 280.

Though it remains tight-lipped on plans, Waymo seems to be following a similar playbook to its rollout in Phoenix, where it’s been operating since 2020.

The company has gradually expanded its service area in metro Phoenix, where it initially limited its ride-hailing to waitlist-approved passengers before broadening it to the public. Rides there are limited to surface streets, though Waymo is allowed to carry passengers to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.

The PUC granted Waymo an unlimited commercial expansion in San Francisco in August, after years of testing in the city with a human driver and carrying passengers at night for free.

That approval allowed Waymo to operate paid ride-hailing at all hours and across the entire city. The company says its San Francisco fleet numbers 250 robotaxis.

Though it had permission, Waymo held off on allowing users to hail rides in the city’s dense northeast quadrant until October.

Waymo has not yet fully opened ride-hailing service to the public in San Francisco, where the company says it’s accumulated a waitlist of about 200,000 people, along with a waitlist of about 50,000 in Los Angeles.

“They’re very cautious about scaling their technology,” said Billy Riggs, a University of San Francisco professor who studies autonomous vehicles and supported Waymo's expansion. “They advance their technology in a way where they don't exceed the operational conditions that they know they can confidently operate in.”


While Waymo’s approved service gives the appearance that it includes the Bay Area’s largest airport, the company needs permission from SFO, which is overseen by the city of San Francisco, to operate commercial service there.

SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel said Waymo would need to get a permit from the airport to operate to and from any SFO-owned facility, which includes destinations such as long-term parking or the Grand Hyatt hotel that serve as stops on SFO’s AirTrain.

Yakel said approval of Waymo’s request for road mapping at the airport and its commercial expansion there is “based on Waymo getting a lot of real-world experience transporting people up and down the Peninsula.”

“We would like to see Waymo complete further development in communities around the airport to ensure this new mode of transit could safely and effectively serve passengers’ transportation needs to a variety of destinations,” Yakel said.

Does this mean Waymo will transport people on freeways?

Waymo hasn’t taken any passengers on Bay Area freeways during paid driverless trips. However, the company is testing its robotaxis on freeways with a safety driver behind the wheel.

While its ride-hailing service in San Francisco and Phoenix remains limited to local roads, the company announced in January that it began testing fully driverless rides on Phoenix freeways with company employees.

The question of when and if Waymo decides to deploy driverless rides on freeways is filled with high stakes.

Ride-hailing service to the airport likely will require use of freeways to compete with Uber and Lyft. But while robotaxis won’t have to contend with double-parked vehicles or crowds of cyclists and pedestrians on freeways, experts say these roads present different and riskier challenges.

High traffic speeds, for instance, mean robotaxis will have less time to react to potential crashes on freeways, which have a higher risk of severity, according to experts.

Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor who’s worked on autonomous vehicle technology for nearly three decades, said robotaxis “will still encounter unusual situations on freeways” like they do on surface streets.

Such situations, like coming across objects that companies have not programmed their robotaxis to respond to, are what’s led to the bizarre behavior that’s frustrated some San Francisco residents, officials and first responders.

“When a (robotaxi) is uncertain on a surface street, one of the answers, as we’ve seen in San Francisco, is just stop and figure it out or call for help or get a human remote assistant to identify something. And that isn’t necessarily going to be available to a vehicle in the middle lane of a freeway moving at 65 miles an hour,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor and engineer studying autonomous vehicles.

Waymo told the Chronicle in September that the company’s testing on freeways has allowed it to acquire data on different types of interactions.

Operating on freeways requires Waymo robotaxis to “see” a lot farther ahead than on local streets given the faster traveling speeds, according to the company. Other complexities include lane changes and negotiating with traffic merging onto freeways from on-ramps.

In January, the company published a video of its robotaxis and autonomous trucks operating on freeways. The video shows clips of robotaxis merging onto a Phoenix freeway and changing out of the right lane, seemingly in response to vehicles parked on a freeway shoulder. In another clip, a Waymo robotaxi exiting a freeway at a speed of 60 mph stops at an off-ramp after it detects a man on the road, allowing him to cross.

What could expanded Waymo service in the Bay Area look like?

If the company follows a similar approach to how it debuted in San Francisco and Phoenix, it will limit service, at first, to local roads transporting people who sign up on its waitlist.

In Phoenix, Waymo’s territory encompasses 225 square miles. Users there can hail rides from one end of the service area to the other, such as from north Phoenix to its suburb of Chandler, though the robotaxis only take surface streets.

That trip would be akin to hailing a Waymo ride in the Bay Area from Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco. It could also mean a similar experience in which it takes almost twice as much time to complete a trip than it would taking an Uber that goes on the freeway.

The expanded approved territory in the Bay Area also raises a question as to how Waymo will handle demand and how much it will scale its fleet of robotaxis.

In San Francisco, the company has instituted surge pricing during busy periods. An expanded service area could lead to longer wait times depending on how many Waymo robotaxis are in operation.

Like in Phoenix, San Francisco and Peninsula residents may encounter odd sights of Waymo robotaxis parked on quiet but public residential streets, idling as they wait for their next ride.

The PUC’s approval, though, made one thing clear — it’s all going to depend on how fast Waymo wants to expand.

“They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and we don’t have enough information on what they’re doing to even be able to judge whether they’re making the right decisions,” said Koopman, the Carnegie Mellon professor, of Waymo.

“We have a fair amount of information on how it turns out later, months later. But information on city streets is not going to tell us what's going to happen when they operate on high-speed roads. We’re going to have to wait and find out.”

©2024 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.