5 Things Waymo’s 360 Video Doesn’t Say About Driverless Cars

Waymo’s 360-degree video of a driverless Chrysler Pacifica makes a ride in one look fun and safe, especially with all the animations showing how parts of the technology work.The video may help the Google-backed autonomous driving company sell wary consumers on cars with no one at the wheel.

But at less than four minutes long, it leaves out some of the details that complicate the vision of a driverless future. Here are five things you won’t learn from Waymo’s video.

1. Some places aren’t so easy to navigate
Waymo shows a driverless car in a developed suburban area on a sunny day. It uses animation to show how the car senses everything around it, such as lanes, signals and crosswalks. It uses a combination of Lidar to build a detailed view of the surroundings, radar to detect objects and their speed, and cameras to capture things like the colors of traffic lights.That’s probably an accurate depiction of how Waymo’s cars navigate the Phoenix area, where the ride service is set to launch this year.

But Waymo is launching in Phoenix for a reason, and it’s not just that the state of Arizona allowed it. It’s a modern city with relatively wide, well-marked streets and mostly clear weather. Less developed areas, jam-packed cities and regions with tougher weather are harder for self-driving cars to master.

Engineers everywhere are working to solve those problems, and Waymo’s minivans may even be ready to take them on. But what its video shows is more of a best-case scenario.

2. Self-driving cars still need help sometimes
For all the talk of cars going driverless, we’re not quite at the stage where autonomous Chevrolet Bolts and Chrysler Pacificas are going to head off on romantic weekends together.”Disengagement reports” required from all companies testing in California show that last year, each faced situations where human operators had to take over. The reasons included software failures, impending crashes and unexpected actions by pedestrians or other drivers. Waymo led the pack in 2017 with just 63 disengagements in 352,545 test miles, but that was still an average of one every 5,596 miles. Most other companies had to take over their cars every few hundred miles. Even when it starts allowing cars with no one in the driver’s seat next month, California will make companies prove humans can take over their cars remotely.

That doesn’t mean users of Waymo’s service will get stranded while their cars figure out what to do. But think of this generation of vehicles as teenagers who just got their licenses.

3. It’s more than learning from ‘experience’
“What makes everything you can see right now possible is experience. Waymo has already self-driven millions of miles on complicated city streets, and it’s constantly learning from every single mile it drives,” the narrator claims.

Collecting fine-grained data about every trip, plus additional miles traversed in simulations, does help autonomous driving platforms interpret what they see and predict how others will behave. But making multiple driving decisions per second also takes advanced algorithms — or even philosophy translated into code.

That may give an edge to companies like Waymo, which grew out of Google and is part of its parent company, Alphabet. Software is invisible, but it matters as much as the gear around the car.

4. An autonomous car is a mobile device
Waymo’s video shows a cool, smart vehicle that knows how to get around by itself.But self-driving cars are part of complex systems that include onboard technology, cloud-based services and — eventually — roadway infrastructure. How much intelligence will reside in the car and how much in the cloud is still up for debate. Wireless networks, eventually using 5G, will play important roles — and might raise coverage issues.

Google, Intel, China’s Baidu and other companies are building navigation platforms that use constant sensor data from cars to maintain a comprehensive map in the cloud. Wireless networks for cars and nearby infrastructure, such as C-V2X and WLANp, could provide traffic warnings and eventually trigger automatic braking.

5. Your automated ride may someday be ‘free’
This one is just speculation so far, but driverless cars may even change the way we pay for rides.Here’s how that might happen: Eliminating the driver is expected to slash the cost of getting driven across town. (Uber predicts average cost per mile will fall from $2.50 to $1.) At that price, local businesses might decide it’s worth giving away rides just to get people in the door.

The store or restaurant might be the destination itself or just a mandatory stop along the way where there’s a good chance riders will spend some money.

Even if it never actually pays for the rides, marketing will probably help to make the rides pay off. Ride-hailing companies already know where you are, where you’re going, and what spots you often visit. It’s a perfect captive audience for advertisers — if they can get you to stop staring at a car driving itself.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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