Waymo expands autonomous ride service to San Francisco - with caveats

Waymo is starting up autonomous ride-hailing in San Francisco, though don't expect to be able to summon a self-driving cab any time soon. Though the Google spin-off's Waymo One service currently offers public rides in Phoenix, AZ, its new Trusted Tester program will be a more exclusive experience.

In fact, only a select group of people will be allowed to join the Waymo One Trusted Tester program. Applications are being taken through the Waymo One app, though the company will be hand-picking who gets to access the service, at least for now.

They won't have an autonomous Waymo car to themselves, either. While the vehicle may be driverless, there'll still be a person from the company inside – Waymo calls them "an autonomous specialist" – to monitor for safety and address any questions or concerns. Trusted Testers will also be expected to give feedback on the experience overall, such as how booking a car through the app went, how the ride felt, and general comments on the whole self-driving experience.

It's not, of course, Waymo's first encounter with San Francisco streets. The city – known for its steep roads and often confusing one-way systems – has been a testing ground for the Waymo Driver for more than a decade now, though it's only recently that employees of the company could catch a ride in one of the vehicles.

"We kicked off this program last week with a select few and are now expanding the program to all interested San Franciscans," Waymo said today. "We'll begin with an initial group and welcome more riders in the weeks to come."

Part of Waymo's goals is seeing how its autonomous service might better fit the needs of people with disabilities. There'll be wheelchair-accessible cars, for example, and Waymo says it's working with a local wheelchair accessible vehicle partner.

In return for the chance to ride in Waymo's cars, meanwhile, those in the Trusted Tester program will be expected to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. We've seen that before, when Waymo trialed its cars in Phoenix before Waymo One fully launched, as it tries to manage perception of the fledgling service and avoid too much bad publicity as the vehicles encounter new challenges out in the wild.

It's unclear just how many cars Waymo will have as part of the new trial, or how many riders it plans to eventually accept onboard. Similarly, no timeline for when a commercial Waymo One service might launch in San Francisco has been shared, though back in May the company applied for permission to charge for autonomous rides in California.