Waymo Testing Its Self-Driving Pacificas in San Francisco, Atlanta

There are fewer and fewer things in life these days that go undocumented. With everyone carrying a camera with them at all times thanks to their mobile phones, if something interesting takes place in public view, odds are that that a picture or video will capture the moment.

This is especially true with autonomous vehicles.

They are hard to keep secret. The sheer size of them makes them conspicuous, and there is a lot of interest. A single tweet about an Apple driverless car that was spied on the road created its own minor news cycle.

One AV company that consistently draws attention is Waymo. As a frontrunner in the race to design a fully autonomous vehicle, the company is frequently making news as it achieves various milestones. One area that is closely being watched is Waymo’s expansion plans. And in January, news of new urban testing grounds for Waymo came out in ways both intended and unintended.

First, TechCrunch obtained a photograph suggesting that Waymo was testing in San Francisco. (This was subsequently confirmed by Waymo through a written statement.)

Then, the company took things into its own hands by tweeting that it would soon also begin testing in Atlanta.

On January 12, TechCrunch posted a photo of one of Waymo’s instantly recognizable self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans operating on the streets of San Francisco. Aside from confirming the previously unannounced development, Waymo did not offer many additional details.

“San Francisco was one of the first cities where we tested our self-driving cars, dating back to 2009 when we traveled everything from Lombard Street to the Golden Gate Bridge,” a Waymo spokesperson wrote to TechCrunch. “Now that we have the world’s first fleet of fully self-driving cars running in Arizona, the hilly and foggy streets of San Francisco will give our cars even more practice in different terrains and environments.”

The return to the Bay Area follows Waymo’s prominent testing in the Phoenix suburbs, where it is breaking new ground this year by testing self-driving cars that are unaccompanied by human operators, and launching an autonomous ride-hailing service.

In the past, Cruise Automation, one of Waymo’s primary competitors, has snidely referenced Waymo’s heavy reliance on the relatively calm streets of suburban Arizona as a way of promoting Cruise’s own intensive testing on the hectic streets of San Francisco. Now that Waymo is back in SF, the company figures to be immune from such barbs.

With the Atlanta news, Waymo didn’t wait for news to leak and and revealed the launch of its driverless service with a tweet: “Hello ATL! Metro Atlanta is the next stop for Waymo’s test program. Now that we have the world’s first fully self-driving vehicles on public roads in AZ, we’re looking to take our tech to more cities.”

While Waymo did not put out a more detailed press release or blog post, Georgia governor Nathan Deal was enthusiastic in discussing the expansion.

“With our talented workforce and legacy of innovation, Georgia is at the forefront of the most dynamic, cutting edge industries like autonomous vehicles,” Deal said. “We are thrilled to welcome Waymo to our state because fully self-driving vehicle technology holds tremendous potential to improve road safety, and we are proud Georgia is paving the way for the future of transportation.”

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