Waymo Prepares to Ditch Its Safety Drivers

Alphabet’s self-driving car company showcases minivans operating without human oversight

4 min read
Photo inside one of Waymo's Chrysler Pacifica minivans, with no driver, and a display showing the car's progression on the rear of the front passenger seat.
The display screens mounted inside Waymo's Chrysler Pacifica minivans feature a user interface that is designed to build trust with passengers.
Photo: Waymo

Waymo yesterday demonstrated Chrysler Pacifica minivans driving themselves without human safety drivers, at its Castle autonomous vehicle test facility in Atwater, Calif. Journalists from dozens of publications, including IEEE Spectrum, were given rides in driverless vehicles that navigated routes, avoided hazards, and successfully dealt with other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Waymo also unveiled the in-car interface that future driverless taxi passengers might use during their rides.

“Our intention is to bring this technology to the world, to the public, to public roads,” said John Krafcik, Waymo’s CEO. “We’re really close.”

The not-so-subtle subtext to that claim was that Waymo thinks its self-driving rivals have a lot of catching up to do.

“Sensors on our new generation of vehicles can see farther, sharper, and more accurately than anything available on the market,” said Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo’s VP of engineering. “Instead of taking components that might have been designed for another application, we engineered everything from the ground up, specifically for the task of Level 4 autonomy.”

Tesla, Audi, Cadillac, and most carmakers are introducing so-called Level 3 technology that automates some driving tasks in some situations, like on highways, but requires drivers to keep an eye on the road. Waymo is going straight to Level 4, where no one even needs to sit in the driver’s seat. “We’ve redesigned our vehicle around the needs of the rider, not the driver,” said Krafcik.

That redesign process is in its early days. Waymo’s Pacificas still have a traditional configuration, albeit with the addition of 12-inch screens mounted on the backs of the driver’s and front passenger’s seats. These initially show a welcome screen with instructions to buckle up and hit a Start Ride button, mounted on a new unit fixed to the ceiling.

“Even though people aren’t driving, a sense of control is critical to help people trust the technology,” said Juliet Rothenberg, Waymo’s User Experience product manager. When the van is moving, the screen shows a cartoony visualization of its surroundings, including nearby road users, lanes, and crosswalks.

A photo shows push buttons labeled Start Ride and Help on the ceiling of a self-driving car produced by Waymo. The interior of Waymo's self-driving car features buttons to grant riders control. Photo: Waymo

The screen also occasionally pops up explanatory messages, such as when the car pauses to yield to pedestrians or is hunting for a place to let passengers out. “Pick-ups and drop-offs are some of the most stressful moments of a ride,” said Rothenberg. Krafcik said that Waymo was working on a “magical” technology that would enable a car to find and recognize riders, even if they were not at the exact point they hailed a car from.

Waymo has experienced the difficulties of ensuring smooth drop-offs during its Early Ridership program in Phoenix, Ariz., where a small group of the public has been using its Level 4 vehicles, albeit with safety drivers behind the wheel. In one case, a car let passengers out right beside a row of prickly cacti that were not marked on its maps. “It was a very Phoenix problem,” said Dolgov.

For just such unexpected situations, Waymo’s cars have a Help button that connects riders to a support desk for advice. Passengers can also lock and unlock the doors, or hit a Pull Over button to end their ride early.

The event offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of Waymo’s 91.5-acre Castle facility, where Waymo puts its self-driving cars through their paces in a controlled manner. “Here at Castle, we can choose from a menu of 20,000 interesting scenarios, test interesting collision avoidance scenarios, and other rare cases,” said Krafcik.

Waymo demonstrated some of those tests, showing its driverless cars avoiding careless lane changers, and inattentive drivers backing out of driveways, and even nosing around moving boxes strewn across the road.

A cyclist crossses in front of a self-driving car at Waymo's test facility. A cyclist crossses in front of a self-driving car at Waymo's test facility. Photo: Waymo

Google started testing at Castle in 2014. The ex-Air Force base has privacy, good weather and roadways, and plenty of room for experimentation. Google added roundabouts and other infrastructure (including a fake railroad crossing), although not the diversity of ultra-realistic highways and fake buildings found at the University of Michigan’s Mcity facility in Ann Arbor.

In 2015, Google chose Castle as a secluded spot to test wireless charging technology for cars, and Waymo’s parent company Alphabet is also using the site to develop new shared wireless broadband technologies using the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service. Waymo would not say whether its cars were part of this test. Alphabet has spent well over $1 billion developing its self-driving cars so far, with the rent for the Castle facility alone topping $375,000 a year.

Other companies working on automated driving also see the value in a private place to test. Uber has its own 42-acre fake city on an old steel mill site in Pittsburgh, complete with mannequins and those perennially tricky roundabouts. Apple and Tesla both enquired about testing their autonomous systems at GoMentum Station, another ex-military base, in Concord, Calif. Uber, Otto, Honda, and Baidu have all used that facility.

Castle may be the biggest such facility right now, but it won’t be for long. The non-profit American Center for Mobility is in the process of building a 500-acre test site for automated and connected vehicles in southeast Michigan. When the facility is completed, hopefully by 2020, it will boast a 2.5-mile highway loop for testing vehicles at high speed, multiple urban and off-roads areas, and a cybersecurity facility.

By that time, Waymo will likely already have fully driverless cars gathering data—and passengers—on public roads.

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