Waymo, the self-driving car company that began as a Google project before spinning off into an independent project owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is once again testing vehicles in San Francisco.
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.
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.
Up until now, Waymo has tested in Mountain View, near Google’s headquarters. In Arizona the company now lets its automated cars do their thing on city streets without any human operator—which, of course, is what all self-driving car developers hope to do—but California law still mandates that a live person be at the wheel.
Back in 2015, Waymo reported that it tested 424,331 miles on California roads and had 341 “disengagements”—i.e., occasions when the human driver was forced to take over.
By 2016 the company had upped its game to 635,868 miles and cut the number of disengagements down to 124. Figures are not yet available for 2017, although the company did report only three traffic accidents to the DMV last year, in contrast with 22 the previous two years.
Most self-driving cars still get tripped up by basic environmental hazards like rain or darkness, meaning that San Francisco’s unpredictable weather can perhaps provide a tougher gauntlet of challenges for robot car prototypes than just the blazing Arizona sun.
Indeed, as any longtime San Francisco commuter will tell you: If a driver, be it human or machine, can put up with driving in the city, it can probably put up just about anywhere.