Self-driving cars are already a regular sight in Mountain View and nearby cities, but the technology will be kicking into high gear starting this week.
Google's autonomous car offshoot, Waymo, announced Tuesday it had received permission from California regulators to begin piloting autonomous vehicles with no human in the driver seat. The company can now send out up to 36 driverless vehicles onto public roads in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.
The new authorization allows self-driving cars to operate without drivers at all hours of the day, along city streets, rural roads and highways. Waymo officials say they will start with a limited geofenced area to begin testing, and will gradually expand it.
Waymo's permit, which it applied for in April, is the first of its kind granted by regulators with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, although driverless testing has already been approved in Arizona. The California permit takes effect on Tuesday, Oct. 30.
Self-driving cars have been navigating Mountain View streets for years, but they have been required to have someone sitting in the driver's seat to take control if the autopilot system were to fail. The new testing phase allows the autonomous cars to be unoccupied, but companies would still be required to have human monitors tracking the systems, and possibly taking remote control in the case of a problem.
In the buildup to driverless testing, Waymo officials have been hosting community meetings in some of the affected cities. A meeting in Mountain View is tentatively planned for December, according to city officials.
Under the new permit, Waymo is obligated to work with local authorities, including developing some kind of protocol for how emergency officials can stop and interact with driverless cars, especially if the vehicles threaten public safety.
In the early days of this testing phase, Waymo officials will be giving rides to their own employees. But eventually, the company intends to begin offering the public free rides in their driverless cars. Waymo is expected to launch an early rider program in the coming days.