Driverless taxis may soon become a more common sight on Los Angeles County streets.

On March 1, state regulators gave Waymo, the self-driving taxi company owned by Google's parent, Alphabet, the green light to expand its robotaxi service to Los Angeles County, clearing the way for the company's expansion into one of the biggest markets in the country.

While local transportation agencies deal with day-to-day traffic operations in their respective jurisdictions, the California Public Utilities Commission oversees the regulation of driverless vehicles across the state, superseding local governments.

Waymo has not disclosed a timeline for when its service will become widely available, but a handful of Waymo vehicles are already roaming about the county, including around the USC campus, as part of its ongoing testing and promotion program.

Under its new approval agreement, Waymo's driverless fleet can operate in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Inglewood, East Los Angeles, Compton and many more locales.

Here's what we know so far about the future of driverless taxis in L.A. County:

What is a Waymo One vehicle and how does it work?

Just like Lyft or Uber, Waymo One is a ride-hailing service, with prices based on the distance for each trip. But unlike those other services, there will be nobody to make small talk with while riding in a Waymo One vehicle because the vehicles are controlled by computer software.

Passengers input their destination via an app and can sit in the front or the backseat, but are not allowed in the driver's seat, according to Waymo.

The company currently uses the all-electric SUV Jaguar I-Pace as part of its fleet in San Francisco and Phoenix, which are equipped with lidar, cameras, radar and an AI platform to safely maneuver through traffic.

Waymo, previously known as the Google self-driving car, developed its own AI software.

Driving automation can be broken down into six categories, according to the standards-setting organization Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). On a scale of 0 to 5, with the lowest being a human being in complete control of the vehicle and 5 being fully automated, Waymo's vehicles could be categorized as 4 or 5, according to the SAE.

Where will Waymo's vehicles be deployed in Los Angeles County?

A Waymo spokesperson said the company will "take a careful and incremental approach to expansion" while working with city officials, local communities and other groups to make sure the service is safe and accessible to its customers.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has given several companies permission to operate driverless vehicles across the state. Waymo is allowed to deploy its fleet at all times of day in its designated domains. The vehicles can operate in inclement weather, rain and fog, with speeds up to 65 mph.

In L.A. County, Waymo will be deployed to portions or all of the following cities: Bell, Bell Gardens, Beverly Hills, Carson, Commerce, Compton, Cudahy, Culver City, El Segundo, Gardena, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood, Lawndale, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Lynwood, Manhattan Beach, Maywood, Paramount, Redondo Beach, Santa Monica, South Gate, Torrance, Vernon and West Hollywood

What should a passenger do if their driverless vehicle gets into a fender bender?

Waymo provides customers with a list of frequently asked questions after they enroll with the service that provides basic information about their ride, but the company declined to answer specifics about what a passenger should do if they're involved in a fender bender while riding in one of Waymo's autonomous vehicles.

In a Nov. 2023 MarketWatch article, Waymo's Tilia Gode, head of risk and insurance, compared the insurance carried on Waymo's vehicles to the coverage a rental car company has for its vehicles.

"Just like any commercial entity, we have insurance coverage in place that covers the Waymo driver over the course of the driving task," Gode explains. "Essentially, there's a shift from human being drivers to the autonomous system being the driver — Waymo is the driver."

So, where does that leave its passengers?

Well, that's where the rubber meets the road.

Like any company that offers its service through an app, customers enter into an agreement when they sign up with Waymo. Passengers are supposed to report any damage to the exterior or interior of the vehicle during their ride and could be held responsible for that damage if it's discovered at a later time, according to the terms of service.

That includes a collision, flat tire or any reason the vehicle is not able to reach its destination.

"I would strongly suggest that somebody immediately involve law enforcement, even if it's not a category of crash where reporting is mandatory," said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Getting a police report that shows the narrative of events is a good idea and can allow for police to interact with Waymo if there is any type of investigation.

What if a Waymo vehicle strikes a pedestrian, bicyclist or someone's property?

There are decades of legal cases when it comes to car collisions and drivers, but not so much for driverless vehicles.

Gregory Keating, professor of law and philosophy with the USC Gould School of Law, said there's a lot of speculation about how those autonomous vehicles will fit into existing law.

The question becomes whether a case will turn on product liability, the vehicle, the software that trained the AI or all of the above in a lawsuit.

"We're entering into new territory," Keating said. "The operator of the vehicle, like Waymo or GM, should be liable, but it's not clear if it will play out that way."

Because Waymo's vehicles are equipped with cameras, all of the events leading up to any type of collision will be recorded by the vehicle, Smith said, but that footage is also Waymo's property.

Law enforcement could procure that footage as part of an investigation, and a lawyer could seek it as part of a lawsuit or a state agency overseeing the program could request the data.

Smith notes that the public is deeply concerned about every instance where an autonomous vehicle is involved in a car crash, but over 40,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes, according to federally available data.

Still, the burgeoning driverless car industry garners public attention because they're now joining other commuters on the road — albeit sometimes a bit bumpy.

In February, a bicyclist in San Francisco was struck by a Waymo vehicle, causing minor injuries, according to Reuters.

Waymo reported that its autonomous vehicle was at a complete stop at a four-way intersection when a large truck crossed the intersection toward the Waymo vehicle. When it was the Waymo vehicle's turn to proceed, the car moved forward, but did not detect the bicyclist that was following the truck, which was obscured. The Waymo vehicle braked heavily, but it was not able to avoid a collision, according to the company.

Police were called to the scene and the Department of Motor Vehicles was notified about the incident.

In another incident, an autonomous vehicle operated by GM struck a motorcyclist in San Francisco. The motorcyclist received some minor injuries as a result of the collision, according to court records in a lawsuit that followed.

In subsequent legal papers referencing the incident, legal experts spoke about the vehicle as if it were a person, using language like "the vehicle was driving unreasonably" and the "vehicle was negligent" as though it were the one that was being sued, Smith said.

How are autonomous vehicles being received by local jurisdictions?

There is a healthy dose of skepticism because state regulators have final say over where driverless vehicles can roam.

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass asked regulators in November to increase their scrutiny of autonomous vehicles and said the city should have a say in how they are regulated.

At the time, she pointed to one of the Waymo driverless cars operating in Los Angeles that had failed to initially stop for a traffic officer at Beaudry Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard on Aug. 3, 2023. The officer had been signaling east- and westbound traffic to come to a stop.

Before the California PUC's approval, San Mateo County Atty. John D. Nibbelin protested, saying the county didn't have enough information on the expansion plans or enough engagement with Waymo.

"The 'quick and simplified' advice letter review process ... is insufficient to develop the evidence necessary to fully understand the potential impacts and issues Waymo's expansion into San Mateo County will create, including accounting for the differing needs and hurdles Waymo will face operating in San Mateo County," Nibbelin's letter to the commission stated.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding the rollout of driverless vehicles, Keating with USC said, and it raises a lot of questions about how existing laws will hold a company responsible for a driverless vehicle. But so far Waymo's track record is above par.

An autonomous vehicle can perform the same type of maneuvers a driver can without any hesitation.

"But there could be that one situation that makes people go, 'Oh, that's kind of spooky that the vehicle did that,'" Keating said. "All it takes is one incident to scare people."

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