Waymo’s self-driving minivans are coming to Atlanta

Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, is adding a new city to its roster of testing locations: Atlanta. Today, the company announced its intention to bring its fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans to the ATL, but wouldn’t disclose many additional details beyond that.

Waymo began mapping downtown Atlanta last week, a spokesperson said. An up-to-date, accurate 3D map is crucial for the operations of self-driving cars. They rely on data for the vehicle’s sensors and cameras, along with a vivid rendering of its surrounding environment.

Waymo says it has tested its autonomous minivans in 24 cities across the US in an effort to expose its vehicles to a variety of environments, weather, and road conditions. The bulk of its testing, though, takes place in five cities: dusty Phoenix, techy Mountain View (and now hilly San Francisco), sunny Austin, chilly Detroit, and rainy Kirkland, Washington.

In addition to Austin and Phoenix, Atlanta provides another relatively snow-free environment for Waymo to test its vehicles. The city, which is very flat, is incredibly car-centric, too; only 16 percent of households are without a vehicle. Atlanta’s metro system, MARTA, hasn’t expanded much since the 1980s. But in 2016 residents voted in favor of a half-penny sales tax increase to fund a $1.2 billion light rail loop along the BeltLine, a former rail corridor that’s been transformed into a park and trail. New transit centers would be built and the underperforming Atlanta Streetcar would extend east and west to connect with the BeltLine.

Last year, the company began testing its minivans on public roads in Arizona without human safety drivers behind the wheel. In the months to come, it says it will be opening these vehicles to the members of its Early Rider program for ride-hailing trips. There’s no word on when this program will expand to other cities.

Update January 22nd, 2:09pm ET: In a statement, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said, “With our talented workforce and legacy of innovation, Georgia is at the forefront of the most dynamic, cutting edge industries like autonomous vehicles. We are thrilled to welcome Waymo to our state because fully self-driving vehicle technology holds tremendous potential to improve road safety, and we are proud Georgia is paving the way for the future of transportation.”



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