Waymo’s self-driving test cars return to Phoenix

Waymo is training its self-driving algorithms from home with simulations.

The coronavirus has put a halt to many things in recent months—including Waymo’s test program for its self-driving cars. Now, with social distancing orders loosening in many parts of the country, the autonomous vehicles will soon be returning to the roads.

Waymo announced on Thursday that it plans to start redeploying its fleet of self-driving cars in the metro Phoenix area starting on May 11. That’s a much-needed sign of normalcy and will help the Alphabet subsidiary continue to improve its platform.

Easing Into a Return

Like most businesses, Waymo won’t instantly return to its pre-pandemic levels of activity. Rather, it plans to slowly ramp up its test fleet while simultaneously taking steps to ensure that employees remain safe.

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Waymo first put a halt to its self-driving vehicle tests almost two months ago on March 17. That move came early on in the course of the pandemic. At the time, Waymo kept its vehicles that operate without a safety driver on the roads, but cars with a human driver were brought in.

Interestingly, the company kept its early-access Waymo One ridesharing service operational until much later. It officially halted that service on April 7.

As such, it’s been a long road back (no pun intended) for Waymo’s self-driving fleet. While Waymo One isn’t returning yet—and may not for some time—the resumption of its autonomous testing program is encouraging.

A company representative said that the restart on May 11 is, “the first part of our tiered approach to safely resume our operations.”

At the end of April, The Burn-In reported that Waymo is using simulations to put its algorithms through 100 years of driving every day. Although that’s better than nothing, there is no substitution for real-world driving. Waymo is certainly looking forward to getting back on the road to continue developing its fleet of autonomous vehicles.

Cautious Approach

While companies like Waymo are pursuing self-driving cars as a technology of the future, it’s important to remember the present. In light of this, Waymo is taking a cautious approach to restarting its fleet and is putting the safety of its employees at the forefront of its plans.

This includes taking proactive steps to closely monitor the health of its workforce and modify how employees interact. Fortunately for Waymo, there isn’t a huge amount of person-to-person contact in its operations. The safety drivers of its vehicles typically ride alone—meaning they aren’t at risk of exposure and can practice social distancing.

In between rides, Waymo is increasing the disinfection measures it takes to keep its vehicles clean. The company is partnering with AutoNation to clean the cars multiple times per day. Meanwhile, any employees who aren’t riding alone as a safety driver will need to wear a mask at all times.

Should all go well with the restart in Phoenix, other locations will likely follow. Waymo is eyeing California and Michigan as possible candidates for a restart of self-driving tests in the near future. Although no date has been given for those locations this will likely occur within the coming weeks.


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