Dllu via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Google car, named Waymo, is on its way (-mo) to popularizing self-driving vehicles. The company is literally miles ahead of its competition: Waymo’s self-driving software has driven more miles than any other automated car company. Not only that, but Waymo brought its cars to Arizona in a ridesharing program it rolled out at the end of last year. And in a twist that must deliver a blow to competitor Uber, Waymo has partnered with Lyft. In the next few months, Lyft riders will be able to choose a Waymo car to pick them up and chariot them to their destination.
Waymo: a little introduction
Say goodbye to the “Google car” and hello to Waymo. The cute name comes from its mission statement: “a new way forward in mobility.”
Waymo started its life about ten years ago as the “Google self-driving car project.” Since then, its self-driving technology has driven about ten million miles on roads, in various iterations (Google made their own car from scratch a few years ago, but has since moved on to modifying cars from other makers). The project was started under Google’s wing but became its own subsidiary company under Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in 2016.
Now, Waymo has teamed up with Chrysler to make self-driving Pacifica Hybrid minivans. They outfit the cars with Waymo hardware and software, including a slew of laser sensors. Plus, they’ve partnered with Jaguar Land Rover to make electric, self-driving Jaguar I-Pace SUVs.
Basically, Waymo decided to take a shortcut around manufacturing its own cars by adding its tech to other vehicles.
So how does Waymo fare on the streets?
Waymo cars drive around with little hats, detecting the world around them via lasers. To navigate around moving objects, the cars use radar, cameras, and something called LIDAR, a light beam sensor. Together, it all forms a picture for the car and anticipates what the people around it will do next.
The company boasts that it has the most driving data of any self-driving car and that their ten million miles on the road are shaping the Waymo software into the world’s most experienced driver. With each mile, the Waymo developers and Waymo car learn more about how to excel at automated driving. But despite all that knowledge and history, Waymo still employs “safety drivers” to sit in their cars and intervene if something goes wrong. Which, on occasion, it does.
The Google car record is certainly better than some of its competition: an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a person in 2018. Apparently, the car detected the pedestrian but Uber had turned off its emergency braking system to prevent erratic braking (because that makes sense). Meanwhile, Tesla has autopilot features in many of its cars that are already on the roads. But the autopilot isn’t fully self-driving and has been involved in a few deaths. Waymo, on the other hand, hasn’t killed anyone. Most of the crashes Waymo cars find themselves in resulted from human error: either the other car’s driver or the safety driver in the Waymo.
However, despite being a leader in self-driving car technology, in 2018 Waymo CEO John Krafcik said: “Autonomy will always have constraints.” For example, before unleashing the cars in an area, Waymo maps it out, taking note of each fire hydrant and turning lane. That way, the company argues, the car focuses on detecting moving things like vehicles and pedestrians. But this approach limits where Waymo can operate (competitor Tesla is trying to get around this method).
After ten million road miles, Waymo is still learning. Sometimes it struggles to take a left turn, patiently waiting longer than a human driver probably would, and it can get confused in very crowded parking lots, though one Waymo rider said it’s gotten better at navigating them. But even with these hiccups, Waymo is on the road, living its best robotaxi life.
Waymo the Robotaxi
To bring life to the hype of self-driving cars, Waymo did a soft launch of its ride-sharing service Waymo One in late 2018. The app is in the Google Play Store, so you can download it and get on a waitlist, but the rideshare service is only operating in the Phoenix, Arizona area. You can also apply to join their Early Rider program, which sees new features first and encourages its riders to provide feedback.
However, Waymo is going beyond its own app: Lyft announced yesterday that it’s partnering with Waymo and will deploy several of their robotaxis in the Phoenix area later this year. You’ll still have to share the car, though, as safety drivers will sit behind the wheel, hands hovering in case of mishaps.
But despite their focus right now, Waymo is way more than a rideshare program. The company wants to fully develop its self-driving trucks and do the minor tasks of revolutionizing commutes, road trips, and every other type of driving. You know, once they finally take that left turn.