The news that autonomous car manufacturer WAYMO, a division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been testing self-driving cars since mid-October became known to the public only on Tuesday when WAYMO CEO John Krafcik made the announcement at a Lisbon tech conference.
“Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the U.S. and around the world,” Krafcik, also said on Tuesday. “Fully self-driving cars are here.”
Just a week or so ago, WAYMO had invited a group of tech and auto journalists to its 91-acre facility, CASTLE, in California’s Central Valley where the company has been testing its autonomous vehicles since 2012.
The purpose of this unprecedented move was to give the attending reporters an insight into how the company is approaching its ambitious plan of putting fully autonomous cars, with no human intervention whatsoever, on public roads.
“In level four mode, you can imagine a completely empty car coming to where you are, you open the door, hop in the back seat, and it can take you — relaxed and happy, perhaps it has Wi-Fi — wherever it is you want to go,” says John Krafcik, CEO of WAYMO. “That’s what we’re striving to achieve every day.”
However, Krafcik did not divulge any information, at the time, about the tests on public roads that have been going on since mid-October – well, not until his Tuesday announcement in Lisbon.
The Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans outfitted with Waymo’s technology “can handle any situation, no matter how challenging,” Dmitri Dolgov, vice president of engineering at Waymo told the attending reporters. “Not once, not twice. All the time. That’s the difference between a demonstration and a product.”
While a WAYMO employee sits on the back seat of all the vehicles tested on public roads, there is no human driver behind the wheel on any of the test cars – no human intervention whatsoever.
For now, the trials are limited to Chandler, a Phoenix suburb, where the company has been conducting a ride-testing program since the beginning of this year to launch a commercial ride-hailing service for the Chandler district. It does, however, plan to expand its test area to include the whole of Phoenix in the near future.
While the tests involve employees, for now, the company soon plans to invite the existing members of the Chandler driverless ride-hailing service as test passengers.
There is no dearth of competition in the autonomous car race with names like Tesla, Uber, Ford, General Motors, China’s Baidu and others, all scrambling to put the first fully functional autonomous vehicle on the streets. However, with the latest announcement, WAYMO seems to be edging ahead of the pack. With Google’s machine engineering talent at its disposal, it doesn’t come as a big surprise. In fact, WAYMO has the wherewithal to become the most formidable competitor in the business of making driverless vehicles of the future.
Although WAYMO has tie-ups with Fiat-Chrysler, Avis, and Lyft, it manufactures its own sensors and hardware to reduce supplier dependability. Here’s how Krafcik explains the clear edge that WAYMO has over the competition.
“This is the most advanced vehicle we’ve developed to date,” he said.
“Everything in it is designed and built for full autonomy. Our combination of powerful sensors gives our vehicles a 360-degree view of the world. The lasers can see objects in three dimensions, up to 300 meters away. We also have short range lasers that stay focused close-up to the side of the vehicle. Our radars can see underneath and around vehicles, tracking moving objects usually hidden from the human eye,” he added.
“To have a vehicle on public roads without a person at the wheel, we’ve built some unique safety features into this minivan,” Krafcik said. “Our system runs thousands of checks on itself every second. With these checks, our systems can instantly diagnose any problems and pull over or come to a safe stop if needed.”
The Chandler community and its local government are happy, to say the least, with the all the attention the WAYMO experiments are getting them.
“Waymo’s work here in Chandler is groundbreaking as they work toward their goal of fully autonomous vehicles,” said Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny, according to a statement made available by Waymo. “At the same time, this research and development taking place in our community will ultimately make our roads safer and provide new freedom for those unable to drive.”
Going forward, WAYMO is looking at a commercial ride-hailing service for its autonomous minivans along the lines of an Uber or a Lyft.
“People will get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles, to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, or run errands,” Krafcik said.
Another factor that goes in favor of WAYMO is its choice of Arizona where regulations for autonomous tests are as good as non-existent. The company is not restricted by law, here, to make public its records of accidents or any other technical glitches involving its vehicles.
Probably, that is why WAYMO’s first safety report released recently has earned it a pat on the back from Elan Chao, the US Secretary of Transportation.
Check out the report here