DMV OKs fully driverless vehicle testing on Silicon Valley streets

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Attendees of a Sept. 5 Waymo community forum at Los Altos Hills Town Hall marvel at one of the company’s hybrid Chrysler Pacifica vehicles.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles on Tuesday (Oct. 30) granted Waymo a permit allowing the autonomous vehicle company to begin fully driverless testing on Silicon Valley streets, including in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.

Sixty companies are currently permitted in California to test autonomous vehicles with a “safety driver” beside the wheel, but Tuesday's announcement makes Mountain View-based Waymo the first to secure clearance for truly driverless testing, according to the DMV.

“It gives us the ability to remove someone from the driver’s seat,” said Alexis Georgeson of Waymo Corporate and Policy Communications.

In addition to Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View, the DMV’s blessing authorizes Waymo to test in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto as well. The permit includes day and night testing on city streets, rural roads and highways with speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour, according to a Waymo press release.

But don’t expect to see completely empty, ghost-like minivans zipping through town just yet, Georgeson said. The first wave of testing, involving a fleet of approximately three dozen test vehicles, will include Waymo employees inside the vehicles but not necessarily occupying the front seats. Employees may now ride within the cabin, away from the steering wheel.

Waymo began testing fully autonomous vehicles in Arizona last year. Approximately 400 households in the Phoenix area have signed up for its Early Rider Program, which allows approved members of the public to ride within and provide feedback about Waymo vehicles on a regular basis.

Eventually, Waymo will invite members of the Silicon Valley community to experience fully autonomous driving locally, as Los Altos Hills City Councilwoman Michelle Wu did earlier this year.

“I support Waymo’s driverless testing as one step forward toward autonomous transportation that improves safety and mobility for Los Altos Hills, where senior citizens make up a sizable and important part of our community,” she said, according to a Waymo statement. “I believe self-driving technology has the potential to be transformative in our lives, especially for seniors.”

Companies applying for driverless permits must meet safety, insurance and vehicle registration requirements, including proof of insurance or a bond equal to $5 million, evidence test vehicles are capable of operating without a driver and training for remote operators, according to the DMV.

“California has been working toward this milestone for several years, and we will continue to keep the public’s safety in mind as this technology evolves,” said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto, according to a DMV press release.

Waymo formed in 2009 as the Google self-driving car project. In 2016, it became an independent entity under Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In nine years, Waymo vehicles have traveled more than 10 million “autonomous miles” on public roads in 25 cities, according to the company’s website.

Related: Awaiting approval of permits, Waymo holds forum in Los Altos Hills

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