Nearly two months after announcing it would halt operations around the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Waymo today said it will begin limited driving tests in the Phoenix Metro area starting on May 11. The Alphabet-backed autonomous vehicle startup described this as the first part of a “tiered approach” to gradually resuming its fleet’s operations, with commercial service to follow only after the health and safety of riders can be assured.
This means Waymo’s eponymous Waymo One ride-hailing service, which was paused in late March, won’t resume pickups and dropoffs just yet. A spokesperson told VentureBeat that Waymo plans to start accepting riders again in the “coming weeks.” But the phase of redeployment detailed today only involves safety and test drivers, as well as other employees and contractors working out of Waymo’s facilities.
Waymo says it is following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local authorities, as it resumes operations. This includes redesigning its facilities to respect social distancing guidelines and spacing out work areas by the recommended six feet. The company has also redefined the use of common areas and limited the maximum capacity for various spaces, and it has created trainings to familiarize employees with new safety standards and protocols for working and moving around its facilities.
In line with Arizona guidance, Waymo employees will wear face masks in facilities and vehicles, except when driving alone. The company also says it has deep-cleaned its buildings and that it will continue to conduct multiple daily cleanings of its vehicles in partnership with AutoNation. Lastly, Waymo says it is working with an occupational health care provider to screen all people entering its facilities.
In the near future, Waymo expects to begin driving again in other cities, including San Francisco, Detroit, and Los Angeles. “We’re taking a thoughtful and measured approach toward bringing our driving operations back on the road,” wrote the company in a blog post. “Resumption of our driving operations in these locations will similarly be guided by ensuring the safety and health of our team in line with … [federal and state] guidance.”
Uber, GM-backed Cruise, Aurora, Argo AI, and Pony.ai are among the companies that have suspended their driverless vehicle programs in the hopes of limiting contact between drivers and riders. In the interim, some, like Pony.ai and Cruise, pivoted to autonomous delivery. Others leaned heavily on simulation to continue development even as their fleets were grounded.