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Waymo to launch commercial robotaxi service in Austin by end of the year

Waymo will begin offering a robotaxi service to the public in Los Angeles this week and in Austin by the end of the year, the company's co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said Wednesday at SXSW.

The Alphabet company has been testing and validating its driverless vehicles across about 43 square miles around downtown, Barton Hills, Riverside, East Austin and Hyde Park neighborhoods. The announcement comes about a week after Waymo started letting its autonomous vehicles traverse Austin without a safety operator behind the wheel, a critical step before the company opens the program to the public.

Opening a robotaxi service means the public will be able to hail a ride in a driverless car via the Waymo One app. Importantly, Waymo will be able to charge for those rides. Austin will become the fourth city where Waymo operates a commercial driverless service. Waymo also operates a robotaxi service in Phoenix, San Francisco and soon Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Waymo will begin by offering rides in a 63-square-mile area from Santa Monica to downtown. Initially, those rides will be free and will transition to a paid service over time, the company said in an accompanying blog post. The company said it's gradually onboarding the more than 50,000 people on its Los Angeles waitlist and is continuing to hand out temporary codes at local events throughout the city.

Unlike Texas, regulators in California require companies hoping to deploy commercial robotaxi services to attain a number of permits. The California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission regulate the testing, deployment and ability to charge for rides. In August, Waymo began operating a commercial service 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the city of San Francisco after receiving approval from the CPUC.

Waymo was only allowed to give people free driverless rides in parts of Los Angeles until March 1, when the CPUC approved its application to operate a commercial driverless service in the city as well as the San Francisco Peninsula and on San Francisco freeways. The approval removed the last barrier to charge for rides in these expanded areas. Importantly, it opens up new territory for Waymo in one of the country's largest cities and unlocks a route to San Francisco International Airport, which is located south of the city.