If you happen to be in Hollywood and see a car go by with no driver at the wheel, don't be alarmed. After more than a year of testing, around 50 driverless robotaxis are debuting to the public across Los Angeles on Thursday.

The autonomous vehicles are run by Waymo, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet. Waymo started giving driverless rides to passengers in San Francisco last year and also operates them in Phoenix.

At first, the rides will be free and open to people who've signed up on Waymo's waitlist, which the company says has 50,000 people. In the coming weeks, Waymo will transition to a paid service. The company's coverage area serves 63-square-miles of L.A. — from Santa Monica to downtown.

The Southern California debut comes as controversy and blunders have plagued self-driving cars in San Francisco. Both Waymo and its competitor Cruise, which is owned by GM, have been blamed for running red lights, blocking public buses and getting in the way of emergency responders.

Cruise was involved in an incident that left a pedestrian severely injured in October — causing the company to halt operations and lose its operating permit in the state.

It hasn't necessarily been a smooth ride for Waymo in L.A.

In the run-up to its debut in the city, there have been complaints by L.A.'s mayor Karen Bass and protests by angry residents. The Teamsters union held one protest outside of Google's local office in October.

Unions and labor leaders say they're concerned the robotaxis will take away jobs and also pose a danger to workers who drive emergency vehicles.

"Autonomous vehicles like the ones that Waymo wants to unleash in our communities, have been wreaking havoc wherever they go," Yvonne Wheeler, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said during the protest. "It's clear that this technology is not ready to be introduced into our roads and our cities."

Both Cruise and Waymo say their vehicles are safer than human drivers and that they've had relatively few incidents. They say they've driven millions of driverless miles without any human fatalities.

However, the incidents have garnered attention. And an Uber self-driving car, operating in full autonomous mode and with a safety driver in the vehicle, killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018.

"Once an unimaginable future, autonomous driving is now a real-world way of getting around for tens of thousands of people each week," said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo.

The state of California approved Waymo's L.A. permit earlier this month, despite protests from local lawmakers.

"I think it's disastrous for this city," said Los Angeles City Council member Hugo Soto-Martinez. "It should be local leaders who should be making these decisions about people's public safety, not an unelected body."

He's supporting a state bill that's been gaining momentum, SB 915, which was introduced by Sen. Dave Cortese, Democrat from San Jose. This bill would change the way robotaxi companies are given permits. Instead of being approved by the state, it would pass permitting authority to local lawmakers.

"Under SB 915, the rules of the road will continue to be established and enforced by the people who live there," Cortese said in a statement.

Waymo is already setting its sights on its next robotaxi debut. It says it plans to start offering rides in Austin, TX, later this year.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



Starting today, a select group of people in parts of Los Angeles can catch a free ride in a car with no driver. Tens of thousands of would-be riders have already signed up, but as NPR tech correspondent Dara Kerr tells us, the ride to the debut hasn't always been smooth.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Around 50 driverless cars that pick up passengers and take them where they want to go are descending on California's largest city.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I grew up in LA. I'm a fourth-generation Angelino. And this was really special.

KERR: This is a promo video featuring Waymo employees on their first driverless rides in LA.




KERR: Waymo is part of Google's parent company. It started driving these robotaxis in San Francisco last year. It also has them in Phoenix.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Smooth and fun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Awesome and delightful.

KERR: Not so smooth and delightful for all Angelenos.


YVONNE WHEELER: When I say Waymo, you say hell no. Waymo.




KERR: In the run up to its LA debut, there have been lawsuits and protests like this one outside the company's local office in October. Labor leaders are concerned that the robotaxis will take away jobs and pose a danger to workers who drive emergency vehicles and even garbage trucks.


WHEELER: It's clear that this technology is not ready to be introduced into our roads and our cities.

KERR: That's Yvonne Wheeler. She's the president of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and she says she doesn't want these cars in her town after seeing what happened in San Francisco.


WHEELER: Autonomous vehicles have been wreaking havoc wherever they go, from blocking fire trucks to crashing into buses, running over animals.

KERR: The state of California approved the LA permit earlier this month, much to the chagrin of local lawmakers.

HUGO SOTO-MARTINEZ: I think it's disastrous for the city. It should be local leaders who should be making these decisions about people's public safety, not an unelected body.

KERR: That's Los Angeles City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez. He supports a state bill that's gaining momentum and would change the permitting power to local authorities.

SOTO-MARTINEZ: And so if we're going to allow vehicles that are as dependable as your local Wi-Fi, I think that's a mistake.

KERR: Waymo has a lot more people to convince that its rides are as smooth and awesome as those in its corporate video.

Dara Kerr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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