Waymo to Test Jaguar I-Pace Robotaxi Tech in San Francisco

Autonomous tech developer Waymo has started offering San Francisco residents rides in autonomous Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs, with a safety driver behind the wheel. Dubbed the Waymo One Trusted Tester program, those who have the Waymo One app will be able to hail an autonomous I-Pace featuring the fifth-generation Waymo Driver system, which is considered to be SAE Level 4 and that will take them anywhere in what the company calls its “initial service area,” which signals a limited, geofenced area for now.

Waymo has been far more active in the Phoenix area when it comes to offering rides to ordinary passengers in the past few years, offering tens of thousands of autonomous rides there starting in 2017, but is only now launching this program in San Francisco, or at least in some parts of the city. The company has been testing vehicles in the Bay Area for much longer, over a decade at this point, along with a large number of other developers based around the Bay Area.

“All rides in the program will have an autonomous specialist on board for now, and our Trusted Testers will also share feedback with us on their ride experience,” the company says. “From using the Waymo One app, to pickup and drop-offs, to the ride itself, we receive valuable feedback from our riders that allows us to refine our product offering as we advance our service. We kicked off this program last week with a select few and are now expanding the program to all interested San Franciscans. We’ll begin with an initial group and welcome more riders in the weeks to come.”

The company indicated that the Trusted Tester program is now open for people to sign up via the Waymo One app. The launch of the program in parts of San Francisco could be viewed as a step toward a slightly wider commercial roll-out of Level 4 taxis without backup drivers at some point in the future, even though Waymo and others aren’t quite there yet to make it happen.

It’s worth noting that when it comes to Waymo’s sensor suite, the cars use a much greater variety of sensors than Tesla’s Full Self-Driving beta cars, including Lidar, to test Level 4 autonomy. The I-Pace vehicles feature a large sensor pod on the roof housing some of the hardware, while other sensors are mounted at other points of the vehicle. By contrast, Tesla has staked the achievement of what it calls Full Self-Driving on visual sensors only starting this year, aiming to achieve higher levels of autonomy over time through software and computer hardware updates, but shunning Lidar.

Of course, there is a difference between launching driverless Level 4 robotaxis in a given city, and launching driverless Level 4 robotaxis in a given city while making a profit. So this isn’t a money-making venture at the moment.

The issue of setting driverless taxis loose in a city is a regulatory one that’s a question of local and state regulations, while the issue of actually making money with a driverless Level 4 service is perhaps equally daunting, as the fares of a certain passenger volume would have to cover the costs of operating such a service. At the moment, no company is close to actually making money via a driverless Level 4 robotaxi service, while a number of truly driverless Level 4 tests are mostly taking place outside the U.S.

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