Waymo, Uber Team Up on Robotaxis in Phoenix

Companies Set Aside Past Rift Over Self-Driving Car Technology
Kate Gallego
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego arrives in a Waymo self-driving vehicle at the Sky Harbor International Airport Sky Train facility in Phoenix. (Matt York/Associated Press)

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Self-driving car pioneer Waymo is teaming up with ride-hailing leader Uber in the Phoenix area to transport passengers and deliver food in robotic cars that triggered a bitter technological dispute between the two companies.

The partnership announced May 23 provides Waymo with another avenue to expand a robotaxi service that it has been running in the Phoenix area since late 2020 while competing to attract passengers from Uber cars that still depend on humans who receive portion of the fares.

Phoenix so far is the only major metropolitan area where a robotaxi operates throughout most of the city, although Waymo and General Motors subsidiary Cruise are vying to run similar autonomous services in San Francisco.

Waymo is making its driverless vehicles available to Uber in Phoenix five years after the two companies spent millions of dollars battling each other in court. The showdown culminated in Uber agreeing to a $245 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit alleging former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick conspired with former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to steal Waymo’s self-driving car technology.

After inheriting the technology from Google in a spinoff, Waymo sued Uber in 2017. That led to a high-profile trial that brought Kalanick into court to testify before the two sides negotiated a surprise settlement in February 2018.

Levandowski later pleaded guilty to criminal charges that arose from the civil lawsuit, but avoided a 18-month prison sentence in January 2021 when he was pardoned by President Donald Trump just before he left office.

Waymo, Uber logos

Uber subsequently sold the self-driving car division that triggered the theft allegations and also provided the technology in a robotic vehicle that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., in March 2018.

But Uber has remained interested in driverless technology as a potential way to boost its profits by reducing the need for humans behind the wheel. The new alliance in Phoenix will involve Waymo dispatching some of its driverless vehicles to pick up passengers and deliver food when summoned through the Uber app at some point later this year.

The two companies didn’t disclose how many of Waymo’s robotaxis will be used to pick up Uber passengers and deliver food.

The addition of Waymo’s robotaxis figures to help Uber build on the momentum that it has been gaining during the past year as the easing pandemic encouraged more passengers to begin summoning rides again while its food delivery service has retained many of the customers who began using it during home lockdowns.

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Supporting Uber’s services also works to the advantage of Waymo by introducing its autonomous vehicles to a wider segment of the population in the Phoenix area. Earlier this month, Waymo extended the reach of its robotaxis to cover most of that region as it gears up to begin charging passengers for a similar service in San Francisco.

Both Waymo and Cruise are hoping to win approval to begin charging for around-the-clock driverless rides throughout San Francisco from California regulators during a hearing scheduled for June 29.