By Jim Walsh, GSN Staff Writer

Waymo plans to double the size of its East Valley operations later this year by opening a new service center in Mesa, making the ubiquitous white vans with the camera on top even more commonplace.

Although Waymo already serves Ahwatukee, Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa, company officials said the new facility would make it easier to expand testing and the Waymo One service in Mesa, cutting down dispatch times.

Waymo One is the company’s ride-sharing platform, similar to Uber and Lyft in some ways but very dissimilar in one important way. Waymo’s white Chrysler Pacificas are autonomous hybrids, with some having a test driver while others do not.

Company representatives said the ultimate goal is to expand Waymo’s footprint even further into other locations, but they declined to offer specifics.

After hundreds of rides on Waymo One – with and without someone at the wheel – the company said it appears clear that many riders already embrace the autonomous concept.

To participate in Waymo One, people must sign up for the Waymo Early Riders program, which has logged 20,000 rides – many by people commuting to work.

“I think it’s been exciting and very innovative, letting people experience it,” said Dezbah Hatathli, a Gilbert resident who is Waymo’s local policy and community manager for Arizona and who served as a test driver for two years.

“You get your time back and your freedom back,” she said, with riders casually browsing through their email while the car rolls along.

Because sometimes no other human being is on board to answer questions, riders also can look at a screen to chart the route they are taking to their destination and how long the trip is likely to take.

The Mesa location, slated to open in the second half of this year, will have 85,000 square feet while the Chandler location, not far from Interstate 10, has 60,000 square feet.

The Chandler location is a large, industrial warehouse with no signs, making for a low-profile operation. One notable clue, however, is the parade of Waymo vehicles going on outside through a parking lot and nearby streets.

Inside, there are several long rows of the minivans parked, waiting for maintenance or for dispatch into the field for future testing or ride-sharing duties.

Hatathli, of Gilbert, said Waymo has about 600 such vehicles in testing in several different locations, but the largest number are traversing the East Valley.

Besides the distinctive camera on top, the vehicles feature multiple lidar systems, which are capable of reading a 95-degree field of vision, and advanced computer features.

She said the Mesa expansion “really helps us on the fleet and the logistics side,” with the new facility focusing heavily on technical functions such as updating the software critical for operating the cars in a safe manner.

The expansion into Mesa demonstrates Waymo’s commitment to Arizona and the East Valley, Hatathli said. Waymo declined to release the location of the new Mesa facility.

In a statement, Waymo said the new Mesa center “will more than double our capacity to service, maintain and grow our fleet of Waymo One cars and, over time, help us expand our team to employ hundreds more local Phoenicians. It’s just the latest step in our investment and commitment to this region.”

The statement quoted Mesa Mayor John Giles on the new addition. “Mesa is thrilled to welcome Waymo to our city where they will be growing and expanding their self-driving service and creating local jobs here in the city,” Giles said.

Waymo’s goal is to create the perfect driver, as opposed to human ones who get distracted, get tired and get impaired, leading to many collisions and even fatalities.

But Hatathli said Waymo considers the East Valley perfect for testing because of its wide, well-maintained streets and the normally hot, dry climate.

“The roads are very well-maintained and very well laid out,’’ Hatathli said, with the Waymo vehicles as a group logging about 25,000 miles of duty per day.

“The car is very conservative and cautious. It has improved my own driving. The car has taught me to be more patient,” she said. “The car is getting better, it’s learning.”