Waymo’s Driverless Cars Look Beyond Slow & Steady

Waymo’s self-driving cars will stretch their legs in their next phase of development, becoming more aggressive and choosing routes for efficiency as well as safety, the Google-backed company claims.

Waymo laid out that vision as it announced that its vehicles just surpassed 10 million miles of travel on public roads. The upcoming improvements, which the company described in an October 10 blog post on Medium, could make driverless rides more appealing as Waymo launches a commercial robotaxi service set to go live in the Phoenix area this year.

The changes may also ease complaints by other drivers, as reported earlier this year by the news site The Information, that the white Chrysler Pacifica minivans are hard to share the road with because they are overly cautious.

To blend in with regular traffic, autonomous vehicles sometimes need to drive more assertively than software programmed strictly for safety might do. The ability to do so in the world’s most aggressive driving cultures is a major focus at Intel’s Mobileye self-driving technology business, which doesn’t supply the systems in Waymo cars. Now Waymo is working to blend aggressiveness and caution in its cars so they can be better at tasks like merging with fast-moving traffic, CEO John Krafcik wrote in the blog post. The idea is to merge fast enough that other drivers aren’t forced to brake while not doing it so abruptly that it’s uncomfortable for passengers, he wrote.

Waymo also plans to merge caution with quickness in choosing routes for robotaxi passengers, Krafcik wrote. Rather than always taking the safest possible route and drop-off point, Waymo software will also consider travel time and how far riders will need to walk when they get to their destination. That can be an important consideration in Phoenix, where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.

The company, founded as Google’s self-driving project in 2009, appears to have a wide lead over rivals that include just about every automaker on the planet. Its ride service in Phoenix has more than 400 early participants and will be the first large commercial launch of its kind if it starts this year as planned. Waymo has vehicles on the road in 25 cities total, including some in Michigan, where it’s conducted tests in snow. It continues to expand those sites and take on more types of weather.

In addition to the real-world testing, the company racks up nearly 10 million miles every day in simulation, where it’s possible to run through rare edge-case scenarios and try out software under challenging lighting and weather conditions without waiting for them to occur.

The company is still up against widespread resistance to AVs. Backers of self-driving cars have lofty goals of eliminating the accidents caused by human drivers, but surveys have shown most consumers don’t yet believe robots are actually better at the job.

Waymo is already suggesting that’s the case in at least some situations. In a video posted along with the blog, Principal Software Engineer Nathaniel Fairfield shows Waymo vehicles navigating tough driving situations including a thick dust storm, a construction zone at night, and an intersection with a red-light runner. An array of sensors including Lidar, radar and cameras cover 360 degrees at all times, detecting and following multiple objects earlier than most human drivers could, he says.

In addition, the cars’ decision-making software looks at each road situation as unique and equally liable to turn into a worst-case scenario, which most drivers aren’t prepared to consider, he says.

“That makes it, in many ways, a very careful driver that is thinking through all the repercussions that you might not be,” Fairfield said.

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


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