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Waymo: Self-Driving Vehicles Almost Ready to Hit the Road

November 1, 2017 0 Comments

Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project, invited several dozen reporters to see its autonomous cars in action, take an unmanned ride, and hear the company’s case that its technology is all but ready to be released.

“We’re pretty excited about where we are right now” in terms of fully autonomous cars, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said to the journalists invited to the testing facility at a decommissioned Air Force base in California. “We’re getting to the point where we’re really close.”

Just how close is still unclear; Krafcik declined to offer a forecast when asked by reporters when Waymo would roll out its tech commercially for the public at large.

Waymo has been pursuing several opportunities at once (trucking, ride-hailing, ride-sharing, “last-mile” connections, and more), but declined to say which opportunity it is closest to accomplishing.

The autonomous car business has plans to work with companies such as Fiat Chrysler, Lyft, and Avis to deploy its new technology, and has spent the last 12 to 18 months working on those partnerships, Krafcik said.

“We see our role not as disruptors but as enablers,” he said.

Waymo is focused on Level 4 autonomy, where a car can drive itself without driver input, but is only able to do so in a “relatively confined area or in a relatively circumscribed set of conditions.” As part of its systems test, Waymo is offering fully autonomous rides in parts of Chandler, Arizona.

The company is hoping to eventually progress to Level 5 autonomy, where self-driving vehicles can go anywhere a human-driven car could go.

The invited reporters got to experience the Level 4 autonomy technology for themselves in a 10-minute, two-mile drive around the Waymo facility without anyone in the driver’s seat.

Troy Wolverton, writing for Business Insider, said that Waymo had set up a network of “streets, traffic circles, driveways, crosswalks, and even a railroad crossing” at the Castle Air Force Base to give the autonomous vehicles different scenarios for testing.

According to Wolverton, a Waymo engineer came along for the ride, and another reporter sat in the back of the modified Chrysler Pacifica minivan as it drove around the course. At the same time, other Waymo employees drove around, crossed streets, and even cycled next to the minivan.

The vehicle handled like a champ in the staged environment, Wolverton reported. It was a little odd to be in a car without a driver, he conceded, but he got used to it.

Waymo equipped its fleet with technology to help reassure and communicate with riders: screens mounted on the back of the front-row seats displaying an image of the vehicle and some of the things it senses (e.g., other cars, traffic cones, pedestrians, etc.).

The screens, designed to show riders the car’s awareness of its surroundings, change views depending on what’s happening. For example, if the vehicle is attempting a right turn, the angle of view shifts to show more of the road to the left and oncoming traffic from that way.

The screens can also display speed limits and flash messages such as “yielding to pedestrians” and “we’re here” upon reaching the destination.

According to Ryan Powell, head of Waymo’s user experience design, the information on the screens is meant to build trust, so that “people will feel Waymo is a safe and reliable and trusted chauffeur.”

Waymo still has some challenges ahead, technical and otherwise. Most of its autonomous vehicle testing is done in mild climates, although the company did announce last week that it’s taking its testing to Michigan to see how the vehicles handle ice, sleet, and snow.

Another question is how the autonomous vehicles will handle unusual situations that could happen in the real world. Waymo is attempting to address this, having its vehicles drive on real streets and running different scenarios at the facility, using the data obtained to run computer simulations at its Mountain View headquarters.

Some non-technical questions Waymo has to contend with are how to market its technoloy and how to convince government regulators that the vehicles are ready to hit the roads. There are societal questions, as well, such as how rollout of autonomous tech will impact the jobs of taxi services, Uber drivers, truck drivers, etc.

And then there’s the issue of the public and its readiness for autonomous vehicles. While Waymo data suggests that about half of the public is ready, there will likely be questions: how will the public use autonomous vehicles, how the vehicles will work, how the vehicles will handle different scenarios, and more.

Overall, it seems as though Waymo still has a lot of work to do. When reporters asked Waymo representatives how the vehicles would handle situations like traffic-blocking obstacles, the reps gave conflicting answers. One representative, according to Wolverton, suggested that the vehicles “might not move until an obstruction — a moving van that was double parked, say — were cleared out of the way.”

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