Although many companies are racing to be the ones to bring a fully autonomous, commercially viable vehicle to the market including Lyft, Ford, Uber, Honda, Toyota, Tesla and many others, it’s Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, that has been the first to reach many milestones along the journey.
At the end of last year, the Waymo team announced on November 7, 2017, “Starting now, Waymo’s fully self-driving vehicles—our safest, most advanced vehicles on the road today—are test-driving on public roads, without anyone in the driver’s seat.”
These vehicles have been on the roads of Chandler, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix, since mid-October without a safety driver behind the wheel, although until further notice there is a Waymo employee in the back seat. Waymo vehicles are equipped with powerful sensors that provide them with 360-degree views of the world, something a human behind the wheel never gets. There are short-range lasers and those that can see up to 300 metres away.
These vehicles don’t have free rein to drive wherever they want quite yet—they are “geofenced” within a 100-square-mile area. As the cars collect more data and acquire more driving experience, that area will expand. Waymo has an Early Rider programme that allows those to apply who might be interested in using the autonomous vehicles to transport them around town.
Later, the company shared its self-driving cars had driven a collective 4 million miles on public roads, a jump of 1 million miles in only six months. This achievement was notable not only for the number of miles driven, but in the short amount of time it took the company to reach it. To give you a point of comparison, it took the company 18 months to reach its first million of self-driving miles.
The Waymo journey first started out in 2009 as the “self-driving car project” in secret. It was led by the co-inventor of Google Street View, Sebastian Thrun, and used Toyota Prius vehicles in its initial pursuit to drive “fully autonomously over 10 uninterrupted 100-mile routes.” Ultimately, the company sees that fully autonomous vehicles will improve mobility for everyone, be safer and free up time for people to do other things than spend time behind the wheel.
By 2012, they added a Lexus RX450h to its fleet and announced it had more than 300,000 self-driven miles. In that same year, they began to test their vehicles on city streets and Steve Mahan of the Santa Clara Valley Blind centre took his first test drive. He was behind the driver’s seat and a test driver was also there.
Google designed a new vehicle that took to the roads in 2015, nicknamed the “Firefly.” This vehicle was built without a steering wheel or pedals as one interpretation of what the future of autonomous vehicle design would be. The Firefly was tested on public roads in the neighbourhoods of Austin, TX, and even transported Mr. Mahan again, but this time with no other driver in the car.
It was in 2016 that the self-driving car project became Waymo and spun off on its own; a subsidiary of Alphabet and a sister company of Google. The name was in reference to “a new way forward in mobility.”
Along with hitting the road with no drivers behind the seat in 2017, Waymo also added the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan to its fleet. To date, the company says it’s driven 2.5 billion simulated miles.
Waymo is already well on its way to the next milestone. Some predict we will see Waymo’s autonomous vehicles on the roads by 2020. John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, definitely foresees deployment of the self-driving systems across several forms of transportation including personally owned vehicles, commercial trucking the ride-sharing services.
Just like Uber or Lyft, it’s anticipated that people will be able to summon rides from the company’s minivans via an app to take them home, run errands or commute to work. There’s also potential for collaboration between Waymo and cities to solve challenging transportation issues.
Waymo’s achievements certainly give others in the industry reason to believe that Level 4 autonomy, where a vehicle is capable of driving itself in any environment or road condition without any human intervention, is on the horizon and the race to be the one to bring it to market first is competitive.