Waymo plans to launch a robotaxi service in Austin — putting the company once again in direct competition with rival Cruise.
Austin will be the company’s fourth commercial market following Phoenix, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The company will kick off the initial phase of its operations in the city this fall; the ride-hailing service will become open to the public at a later date.
The commercial expansion to Austin is a full-circle moment for Waymo. Back in 2015, the former Google self-driving project conducted its first driverless ride on public roads with a legally blind man named Steve Mahan riding solo in the prototype Firefly vehicle.
Waymo returned in March 2023 to test the latest iteration of its self-driving system — known as the “fifth-generation driver” — in its modified Jaguar I-Pace vehicles. While it wasn’t a guarantee that Waymo would launch its commercial ride-hailing service in Austin — the company has tested in several cities for brief periods of time — it did hint at what was coming.
The expansion to Austin puts Waymo, once again, on the same roads as Cruise. Both companies currently operate a ride-hailing service using their self-driving vehicles in San Francisco. Last year, Cruise also soft launched a ride-hailing service starting with its own employees in Phoenix, a known Waymo’s self-driving commercial stomping ground.
The announcement also comes just a week after Waymo said it was winding down its self-driving trucks program to put all of its capital, talent and resources towards ride hailing.
Waymo didn’t share how many driverless vehicles will be in its Austin fleet. The company did confirm that it will follow a similar playbook to the one it’s used for other markets.
Waymo typically begins with employees or contractors (called human safety operators) behind the wheel of its test vehicles. Eventually, the Waymo worker is removed and the driverless vehicles are monitored remotely. Waymo then opens its service to vetted members of the public, or “riders.” Eventually, the service, known as Waymo One, is accessible to everyone willing to pay for a ride. Today, Waymo only charges for rides in Phoenix. The company is awaiting a final permit from the California Public Utilities Commision that will allow it to charge passengers in the state. Cruise is also waiting for the same permit.
Waymo initially tested its vehicles in and around downtown. The company said in a blog post Thursday that it plans to expand to other neighborhoods in the city, including Barton Hills, East Austin, Hyde Park and Riverside.