Waymo shuts safety driver-monitored autonomous taxis citing coronavirus fears

Waymo shuts safety driver-monitored autonomous taxis citing coronavirus fears (Photo: Waymo)

Waymo, the autonomous driving unit of Alphabet, has announced that it will shut down all of its human-monitored self-driving taxis across Phoenix, Arizona, in a bid to protect employees from contracting the coronavirus. However, the truly self-driving vehicles that run without human safety drivers will continue their operations. 

“In the interest of the health and safety of our riders and the entire Waymo community, we’re pausing our Waymo One service with trained drivers in Metro Phoenix for now as we continue to watch COVID-19 developments. We’ve also paused driving in California in line with local guidance,” said Waymo in its statement

It is interesting to note Waymo’s change in stance within the space of a few days. Last week, Waymo had stated that it would continue to operate its self-driving taxi fleet – including the ones with the safety drivers – even when there was widespread angst amongst its driving community. Voices went up against Waymo’s apparent bias, as the company had ‘strongly’ encouraged its full-time employees to work from home if they could, while not extending the same courtesy to its driver workforce. 

Waymo One, the service that involves trained drivers monitoring the taxi in the Phoenix region, gets its drivers via a partnership with Transdev North America, a French transit company, that employs the drivers. Though Transdev had meticulously followed the cleaning and disinfecting part of the procedure to prevent the virus spread, the company had largely not been keen to ask its drivers to remain home and socially distance themselves. 

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, one of Waymo One’s safety drivers refused to pick up a rider at Intel’s campus in Chandler, Arizona, after hearing reports about an Intel employee being infected with the coronavirus. This led Transdev to send out an email to all its drivers, assuring that both Transdev and Waymo were committed to responding quickly to ensure the health and safety of its employees. 

The rationalization behind continuing to run self-driving cars with driver assistants over the last week was due to the region not being considered an epidemic zone. However, with exponentially growing cases, Waymo found it best to shut down human-involved operations this week. The statement does not mention when the drivers would be asked to get back to work, only mentioning that Waymo will continue to monitor the virus spread.

This apart, Waymo will clean and sanitize its vehicles several times through the day, while also providing sanitizing products in the car for every rider to use. Waymo currently operates Chrysler Pacifica minivans within geofenced areas in the Phoenix region. The company also runs local deliveries and is testing its technology on trucks – with both the services expected to continue unhindered.