Alphabet's Waymo Moonshot May Soon Be A Robocar Business

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Waymo

A Chrysler Pacifica hybrid-electric minivan outfitted with Waymo’s self-driving technology.

It may be showtime for Waymo. After years of semi-secret work developing self-driving cars the Alphabet Inc. unit  has begun sharing a surprising amount of information about how its vehicles work and kicked off a safety campaign, suggesting the long-time Google moonshot is about to turn into a commercial operation.

Waymo posted a 43-page report, “On the Road To Fully Self-Driving,” Thursday with details about its sensors and software, its “Early Rider” program in suburban Phoenix and approach to testing. Days earlier it began the "Let’s Talk Self-Driving" promotion for the technology, joined by groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council and the Federation for Blind Children.

Although Waymo’s autonomous fleet always has safety drivers at the wheel, a report this month in The Information said the Alphabet unit will start a commercial ride service as early as this year – with no human at the wheel. Johnny Luu, a company spokesman, declined to comment on the matter for Forbes.

Still, the company’s report revealed that its prototypes are already capable of being solely robot-driven.

“In self-driving jargon, Waymo’s self-driving system is designed to perform the entire dynamic driving task within a geographic area and under certain defined conditions, without the need for a human driver,” the report said. “This type of technology falls under SAE International’s definition of a Level 4 automated driving system, as our technology also has the ability to bring a vehicle to a safe stop … in the event of any system failures.”

Google ignited the race to perfect autonomous vehicles eight years ago, after it recruited a team of engineers who’d proven their talents in a legendary series of DARPA Challenge robot car races. To date it’s invested more than a $1 billion in the program, based on recent court documents, and is moving to stay ahead of a multitude of auto and tech companies, including Uber, Tesla, General Motors and Ford, that are developing competing systems.

Notably, Waymo claims its long-distance laser LiDAR sensor, which allows the vehicle to see road conditions in any kind of light and in all directions, can see up to 300 meters. That would exceed the 200-meter range of top-end LiDAR units from Velodyne, the largest commercial supplier of the optical devices.

(For more on Velodyne, see "How A 34-Year-Old Audio Equipment Company Is Leading The Self-Driving Car Revolution" from the September 5, 2017 issue of Forbes.)

A long lead in autonomous tech R&D appears to have helped Waymo rack up more testing, both on road and in the lab, than any competing program.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Waymo CEO John Krafcik introduces a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo’s own suite of sensors and radar at the North American International Auto Show.

“Waymo has spent eight years building and refining our software, using machine learning and other advanced engineering techniques. We’ve trained our software through years of careful design and testing, billions of miles of simulated driving, and more than 3.5 million miles of on-road driving experience.”

The Early Rider program in Chandler, Arizona, and adjacent Phoenix suburbs, began in April as a free service to local residents. The report says that passengers use a Waymo mobile app to request a ride to a particular destination; hit a button in the app to start the ride once onboard; or to stop a ride that’s in process. They’re also encouraged to share feedback about the service via the app.

The Pacifica Hybrid minivans Waymo uses in the Arizona program also have monitors that provide passengers with information about the trip and show what the vehicle sees around it throughout the journey.

Given that Waymo recently partnered with Avis Budget Group to keep its Arizona test fleet clean and in good condition, it seems likely that that free pilot program, now using human safety drivers, will transition to a fare-based service.

And importantly, that’s no problem in Arizona.

“We are not aware of any current state law that would prohibit that,” Ryan Harding, a spokesman for Arizona’s Department of Transportation, told Forbes.

If Waymo starts generating revenue from robot-car rides it will be the biggest step to date for the self-driving movement. It also comes as federal and state legislators move to create rules for the technology.

Late Thursday, hours after Waymo posted its report,  the U.S. Department of Transportation praised the company for publishing a safety report.

“Just one month after U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced the Automated Driving Systems (ADS):  A Vision for Safety 2.0Waymo today becomes the first company to make a voluntary safety self-assessment public,” the agency said in an emailed statement. It’s “encouraged that companies are moving forward and implementing the Voluntary Guidance.”

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Waymo

A Chrysler Pacifica hybrid-electric minivan outfitted with Waymo’s self-driving technology.

It may be showtime for Waymo. After years of semi-secret work developing self-driving cars the Alphabet Inc. unit  has begun sharing a surprising amount of information about how its vehicles work and kicked off a safety campaign, suggesting the long-time Google moonshot is about to turn into a commercial operation.

Waymo posted a 43-page report, “On the Road To Fully Self-Driving,” Thursday with details about its sensors and software, its “Early Rider” program in suburban Phoenix and approach to testing. Days earlier it began the “Let’s Talk Self-Driving” promotion for the technology, joined by groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council and the Federation for Blind Children.

Although Waymo’s autonomous fleet always has safety drivers at the wheel, a report this month in The Information said the Alphabet unit will start a commercial ride service as early as this year – with no human at the wheel. Johnny Luu, a company spokesman, declined to comment on the matter for Forbes.

Still, the company’s report revealed that its prototypes are already capable of being solely robot-driven.

“In self-driving jargon, Waymo’s self-driving system is designed to perform the entire dynamic driving task within a geographic area and under certain defined conditions, without the need for a human driver,” the report said. “This type of technology falls under SAE International’s definition of a Level 4 automated driving system, as our technology also has the ability to bring a vehicle to a safe stop … in the event of any system failures.”

Google ignited the race to perfect autonomous vehicles eight years ago, after it recruited a team of engineers who’d proven their talents in a legendary series of DARPA Challenge robot car races. To date it’s invested more than a $1 billion in the program, based on recent court documents, and is moving to stay ahead of a multitude of auto and tech companies, including Uber, Tesla, General Motors and Ford, that are developing competing systems.

Notably, Waymo claims its long-distance laser LiDAR sensor, which allows the vehicle to see road conditions in any kind of light and in all directions, can see up to 300 meters. That would exceed the 200-meter range of top-end LiDAR units from Velodyne, the largest commercial supplier of the optical devices.

(For more on Velodyne, see “How A 34-Year-Old Audio Equipment Company Is Leading The Self-Driving Car Revolution from the September 5, 2017 issue of Forbes.)

A long lead in autonomous tech R&D appears to have helped Waymo rack up more testing, both on road and in the lab, than any competing program.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Waymo CEO John Krafcik introduces a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo’s own suite of sensors and radar at the North American International Auto Show.

“Waymo has spent eight years building and refining our software, using machine learning and other advanced engineering techniques. We’ve trained our software through years of careful design and testing, billions of miles of simulated driving, and more than 3.5 million miles of on-road driving experience.”

The Early Rider program in Chandler, Arizona, and adjacent Phoenix suburbs, began in April as a free service to local residents. The report says that passengers use a Waymo mobile app to request a ride to a particular destination; hit a button in the app to start the ride once onboard; or to stop a ride that’s in process. They’re also encouraged to share feedback about the service via the app.

The Pacifica Hybrid minivans Waymo uses in the Arizona program also have monitors that provide passengers with information about the trip and show what the vehicle sees around it throughout the journey.

Given that Waymo recently partnered with Avis Budget Group to keep its Arizona test fleet clean and in good condition, it seems likely that that free pilot program, now using human safety drivers, will transition to a fare-based service.

And importantly, that’s no problem in Arizona.

“We are not aware of any current state law that would prohibit that,” Ryan Harding, a spokesman for Arizona’s Department of Transportation, told Forbes.

If Waymo starts generating revenue from robot-car rides it will be the biggest step to date for the self-driving movement. It also comes as federal and state legislators move to create rules for the technology.

Late Thursday, hours after Waymo posted its report,  the U.S. Department of Transportation praised the company for publishing a safety report.

“Just one month after U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced the Automated Driving Systems (ADS):  A Vision for Safety 2.0Waymo today becomes the first company to make a voluntary safety self-assessment public,” the agency said in an emailed statement. It’s “encouraged that companies are moving forward and implementing the Voluntary Guidance.”

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