Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, has begun testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in Phoenix, Arizona, without human safety drivers at the wheel. With this latest move, the company has brought self-driving cars to a new level.
During the past month, Waymo has been operating autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in the Phoenix area, where there are no regulations for driverless cars. The vehicles navigated the streets independently as a way to test and develop self-driving car technology. Waymo had previously tested the same minivans, but with an employee in the driver's seat ready to take control in case of technical malfunction. Now it's showing a high level of confidence in their development and taking things even further.
On Tuesday, speaking at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Waymo CEO, John Krafcik, said that its employees are already hailing the minivans in and around Phoenix through a mobile app. The vehicles' artificial intelligence system and broad range of sensors navigate the streets. Within a few months, Waymo vans loaded with lidar, radar, cameras, computers, artificial intelligence and no safety driver will pick up Phoenix residents registered in its Early Riders programme, a group of bold citizens who can get free rides, but in some cases in exchange for their nerve. The trust factor is still one of the greatest barriers with this technology.
Waymo, a direct descendant of Google's in-house self-driving project, is likely to be the first company to operate an autonomous fleet without safety drivers, a transition that keeps it ahead of fast-moving rivals. The company has taken a methodical approach to move from research and development to putting these vehicles on public roads. At its current pace, we expect Waymo to start offering a paid ride-hailing service in 2018.
The Chrysler minivans at Waymo's semi-secret test facility in Arizona operate at level 4 of autonomous capability. According to SAE International, at this level, cars can drive without a human at the wheel in most circumstances. The ultimate goal of Waymo and all those developing self-driving technologies is to reach level 5, meaning the self-driving system is so advanced the vehicle is capable of driving anywhere a human can under all conditions.
In reality, there are still challenges to reach full autonomy. However, 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 strong ability to predict behaviour of other cars, as well as pedestrians, cyclists and everyday obstacles that pop up in an imperfect world.
The business models behind autonomous driving vary. Companies like Waymo and Uber plan to operate fleets of self-driving taxis, while some car-makers such as Tesla and Volvo aim to sell such vehicles directly to consumers. Other manufacturers including GM, BMW and Volkswagen, are hedging their bets, pursuing both strategies simultaneously in case the current car-owning culture gets disrupted.
Waymo is moving quickly to develop the technology and lock in its early-mover status, as self-driving car programmes of other companies eye the same goal of getting fully autonomous vehicles on the road. However, this doesn't mean that the technology will be adopted rapidly. We believe that widespread availability of level 5 cars could be at least 15 years away. It will take a level of trust in the technology to alter transport behaviours. It's a matter of legislation, regulation, safety and consumer acceptance all lining up. This will be a big shift.