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Waymo begins testing self-driving cars in an effort to reassure the public of safety

May 16, 2017 0 Comments

Even with the safety advances in self-driving cars, many people are wary about getting in one. According to a recent AAA study, three out of four Americans are afraid of riding in self-driving cars. Kathy Rizk, director of Global Automotive Consulting at J.D. Power, adds that people “don’t trust that the technology is going to work 100 percent of the time,” and that it’s difficult to put trust in “something that’s going to take over the entire vehicle.”

In an effort to combat public wariness, Waymo is beginning a free ride test for the public in Phoenix, Arizona with their Early Rider Program, using driverless Lexus SUVs and Chrysler Pacifica minivans for the test rides. Waymo CEO John Krafcik wrote in a Medium post that the “goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco.”

Waymo is not the first company to start testing out their driverless vehicles, though; Uber offered test rides to select passengers last year in Pittsburgh, and nuTonomy offers rides in Singapore neighborhoods.

The Early Rider Program hopes to put the public more at ease with the idea of self-driving cars, and Waymo – who, according to the California DMV’s disengagement reports, has “the best technology,” or the miles a self-driving car can go without human intervention – is taking steps to ensure it does just that. They have new cameras to help with navigating in the rain, as well as wipers added to spinning lidar on the roof to help “mitigate a surprisingly routine problem: bird droppings” (Automotive News). Their vehicles also have new sensors (which are cheaper and generate a 360-degree view around the car) that can detect other cars and objects up to 200 yards away.

A bigger challenge are the “edge cases,” where self-driving vehicles have to anticipate virtually unpredictable human behavior on the roads. This is especially important, as whenever a self-driving car is involved in an accident – there have been fender benders and the more serious Tesla Model S crashing into a semi-truck while in autopilot mode – the public recoils. Newer technology is helping self-driving vehicles get better at figuring out how fast cars are merging onto highways, as well as figuring out if another car is planning a U-turn. Unprotected left turns are particularly tricky, as the vehicle must determine if it has enough time to make the turn in the face of oncoming traffic.

While technology chief Dmitri Dolgov is confident Waymo is ready to drive people around in the self-driving cars, the test drives will be monitored closely. A Waymo employee will be in the driver’s seat at all times to make sure the vehicle runs smoothly and safely.

Originally Waymo wanted to test out human-robot interaction via a concept car codenamed Firefly, a small, round vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals that maxed out at 25 mph, but California regulators turned the idea down because the vehicle lacked controls for a human to take over the car. Still, Waymo is optimistic, and thinks that regulators will eventually approve of vehicles without human controls.

Google, Waymo’s parent company, has “a history of rosy forecasts for fully self-driving cars,” which may or may not be warranted. Some of their products hit the market and are wildly successful (such as Gmail), while others do not get the success Google anticipated, like the Google Glass.

Still, Dolgov (and the company) are careful to avoid overconfidence. The project is not without its flaws; in a previous limited self-driving vehicle trial in Phoenix, Waymo had to deal with dust storms. As Dolgov points out, they’re in “a learning phase.” Waymo has taken their time in producing a fully self-driven car, knowing that the release needs to be virtually flawless. They may be under some pressure as well, as Uber (Waymo sued Uber over allegedly stolen technology) has begun testing their self-driving cars in other cities. Tesla is working on their autopilot program, and most automakers are working on some kind of “robot car” (Automotive News).

Even with the new technology and the lengths Waymo and other companies are going to, it may take time for the public to warm up to self-driving cars. Yes, the technology is safer, Chris Rockwell, founder of user research firm Lextant, said. But, he continued, “that doesn’t necessarily get the passengers on board.”

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