Google affiliate Waymo to put first fully driver-less cars on road
08 November 2017
Self-driving car maker Waymo, formerly Googles self-driving project, has said it is confident enough in its technology to ditch the human safety driver and open up its fleet of driverless or autonomous cars to the public.
Companies testing autonomous cars typically have a human on hand ready to step in if the car malfunctions. But Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc, said it no longer needed that protection - though at first one of its employees will ride in the back with customers.
This dramatic next step for Waymo comes after eight years of preparation, most of it as the Google Self-Driving Car project. The Alphabet unit has begun testing autonomous vehicles on public roads without human safety drivers at the wheel, and early next year will make its robotic chauffeurs available to commuters in Phoenix, Arizona.
The self-driving fleet will run on highly-modified Fiat minivans.
It is the not the first time Waymo has demonstrated cars without human drivers even as a back-up on public roads. Its driverless prototype has been tested over short journeys on pre-defined routes, including taking a blind man to a doctor's appointment.
But this latest move will greatly increase the ambition, and risk, of Waymo's technology - it will eventually cover an area the size of Greater London, the company said.
Speaking at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said on Tuesday that company technicians are already hailing its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in and around Phoenix via a mobile app and leaving it to the artificial intelligence operating the vehicles to figure out how to get to requested destinations. Within a few months, Waymo vans loaded with laser LiDAR, radar, cameras, computers, AI and no human safety drivers will pick up Arizonans registered in its 'Early Riders' programme.
''We're now working on making this a commercial service available to the public. 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. ''Getting access will be as easy as using an app; just tap a button and Waymo will come to you, and take you where you want to go.''
Google's push to perfect driverless cars, stretching back to 2009, ignited a tech race in the auto industry that represents the biggest change in personal transportation since horses were replaced with horseless carriages more than a century ago. But as Fortune points out, Waymo has to move fast to lock in its early-mover status as autonomous vehicle programs at dozens of companies, ranging from General Motors to BMW to Uber to Tesla to Baidu race to catch up and commercialize their own driverless tech.
''We recently surveyed 3,000 adults across the United States, asking them when they expected to see self-driving vehicles – ones without a person in the driver's seat – on their roads. The most common answer? 2020,'' Krafcik said. ''It's not happening in 2020, it's happening today.''
In the 11 months since the Google program turned into Waymo, it's taken a methodical approach to move from R&D initiative to revenue-generating venture. Krafcik's speech didn't spell out when the revenue generation begins, but at the company's current pace Waymo is likely to start offering a paid ride service sometime in 2018.
Phoenix-area riders currently don't pay to be driven in Waymo vehicles, which arrive with company technicians sitting in the front.
During his speech Krafcik, who spent three decades in the auto industry at companies including Hyundai Motor and Ford before going to Google in 2015, showed a video of Waymo vans operating in suburban Phoenix with no one at the wheel. It ''marks the start of a new phase for Waymo and the history of this technology'', he said.
''We're test-driving these fully self-driving vehicles in a part of the Phoenix metro area in Arizona. Over time, we'll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, which is larger than Greater London. Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the US and around the world.''
Though Waymo was stung by the loss of key founding team members in 2016 and is pursuing a rancorous lawsuit with Uber, it's executed step-by-step moves to commercialisation in 2017.
In April it expanded a vehicle supply deal with Fiat Chrysler to a total of 600 minivans for its fleet, when it also announced the Phoenix test program for passengers who signed up to be Early Riders. It's also been in talks for a potential partnership with Honda.
In May it announced plans for an autonomous vehicle pilot program with ride-hailing service Lyft, and in June inked a service deal with rental car giant Avis to help maintain its Phoenix area test fleet. That month Waymo also disclosed that it's testing self-driving technology on large commercial trucks.
In October Waymo began a public safety campaign about the benefits of self-driving tech, posting a 43-page report, 'On the Road To Fully Self-Driving', detailing its sensors, software and testing procedures. Days earlier it launched the 'Let's Talk Self-Driving' campaign, joined by groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council and the Federation for Blind Children. Last month it also announced plans for cold-weather testing of driverless vehicles in Michigan, expanding from fair-weather locales including Phoenix, Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.
This month, the company also announced plans for a multi-year partnership with AutoNation, the largest US car dealer, to provide maintenance services across the US as the Waymo fleet grows.
Technical chief Dmitri Dolgov told reporters visiting Waymo's semi-secret 'Castle' test facility last month said its minivans operate at SAE Level 4 autonomous capability, meaning they can drive without a human at the wheel in most circumstances. The ultimate goal of Waymo and its competitors is to reach Level 5 capability, in which vehicles can drive anywhere a human can under all conditions.
Level 5 is still a ways off, but millions of on-road test miles and billions of miles of virtual driving in computer simulation, combined with elaborate sensor rig and backup computers, has given Waymo a high level of ability to predict behaviour of other cars, pedestrians, cyclists and everyday challenges its vehicles encounter, Krafcik said.
''For each road user, our technology is able to make predictions about their movements in the future, just like a human would. Except while a person may only be able to do this for a handful of objects in front of them, we can do this for hundreds of objects around us, simultaneously,'' he said.
''The fact that we could operate on public roads without a human driver means we have to be ready to safely handle everything that could happen, even rare and unusual situations that you may come across once or twice in a lifetime of driving.''