Waymo to start testing rider-only vehicles on Phoenix-area freeways

Jan 9, 2024, 4:35 AM

A Waymo self-driving SUV stops at a crosswalk...

Waymo has been expanding its capabilities since launching the nation's first fully self-driving taxi service in suburban Phoenix in 2020. (Waymo Photo)

(Waymo Photo)

PHOENIX – Metro Phoenix motorists could soon see autonomous vehicles with nobody in the driver’s seat traveling on area freeways, Waymo announced Monday.

The company, which started out as Google’s self-driving car project, said it will begin rider-only freeway testing in the coming weeks, with the option only available to Waymo employees at first.

Until now, Waymo’s robotaxis have been limited to surface streets unless a backup driver was behind the wheel.

The ability to use freeways will significantly improve the efficiency of the Waymo One ride-hailing service, the company said. For example, a trip from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to north Scottsdale that takes 50 minutes on surface streets would only take 25 minutes using the Loop 101 Pima Freeway.

How long has Waymo One been operating in metro Phoenix?

Waymo’s high-tech SUVs have become a common sight on Valley roadways since the nation’s first fully driverless commercial taxi service was launched in the East Valley three-plus years ago.

Passengers can hail Waymo One robotaxis through a mobile app, similar to how Uber and Lyft work.

Waymo One has been expanding its capabilities incrementally since debuting in October 2022 with a service area that covered about 50 square miles in and around Chandler.

The range ballooned in May 2023 to include over 180 square miles covering most of Chandler and Tempe and parts of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa.

The service area grew by another 45 square miles in July, adding destinations such as Camelback Mountain, McCormick Ranch and The Farm at South Mountain to the Waymo One map.

When did Waymo debut Phoenix airport service?

Along the way, the self-driving SUVs started picking up and dropping off riders at the 44th Street PHX Sky Train station in December 2022, making Sky Harbor the first airport in the world with autonomous vehicle service.

Phoenix airport service was later expanded to the 24th Street PHX Sky Train station.

Sky Harbor access advanced again last month, when Waymo started curbside service at both terminals during off-peak hours.

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Waymo to start testing rider-only vehicles on Phoenix-area freeways