For the first time since the company paused its public testing in early March due to Covid-19, Waymo’s self-driving minivans are hitting the streets again in the Bay Area. Waymo’s robot minivans are already back on the road at the company’s private testing facility in California’s Central Valley. They have also returned to the roads in the Phoenix area as well.
The minivans will first be used for delivering packages for two non-profits in the Bay Area: Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired; and illustrator Wendy McNaughton’s #DrawTogether who provides art kits to Bay Area kids. The non-profit deliveries will only require a single operator in each vehicle and will be single driver missions.
Waymo along with the rest of California’s AV companies halted on-road testing after the city issued a “shelter-in-place” order in mid-March banning non-essential travel. Now, the company is the most recent AV operator to realize that doing deliveries allows it to side step restrictions that would otherwise keep their autonomous vehicles off the road.
It is unknown how many vehicles or vehicle operators will be back to work. Waymo’s backup drivers are employed by Transdev North America after signing a multi-year contract with them last summer. They provide bus drivers, streetcar conductors, and other transportation workers to airports and cities. With the contract being signed it is clear that Waymo will depend on test drivers for many years to come. Only a certain number of backup drivers have been trained to ride in Waymo’s autonomous vehicles alone. Transdev’s goal is to restart operations requiring two vehicle operations. However, that date has not yet to been set. Backup drivers who will be returning to work are required to complete training sessions including social distancing and disinfection. Anyone entering Waymo’s facilities is required to complete a temperature check, and maximum capacity will be enforced.
A spokesperson at Waymo stated “After careful consideration and active conversations with our teams, partners, and local and state authorities, we’ve begun over the last several weeks to resume our driving operations in Phoenix. Soon San Franciscans will also begin to see some Waymo vehicles back on the road, and we’re proud to provide charitable delivery support to community partners. The health and safety of our team is our number one priority as we begin to drive again in San Francisco.”
Waymo has been in hot water with some of its operation staff since signing the contract with Transdev last year. According to a handful of workers, vacation time has been cut, issues of workplace safety have gone unaddressed, and there has been no improvements to health insurance. However, Waymo has continued to pay its workers during the three months of downtime, while other self-driving companies have cut their staff.
There are mixed emotions amongst the Bay-Area based drivers. In one statement a driver said they were “excited to get back to work, to be productive once again and to continue our missions that we’ve all trained hard for.” Another driver suggests, with the announcement of the non-profit deliveries, the company may have “found a loophole to get back to testing.”