Less than a year since Google’s Self-Driving Car project became Waymo, the company is close to commercializing its extensive R&D. The Alphabet Inc. unit this week showed off how it’s fine-tuning sensors and software on faux city streets at a secret complex in a sleepy agricultural section of California to achieve that goal.
Known as the Castle, a nod to its former life as Castle Air Force Base, the Atwater, California, facility is where Waymo technicians since 2012 have safely created what they call “spicey” scenarios – complex interactions with other cars, pedestrians and bicyclists to help its robotic vehicles get smarter. CEO John Krafcik said tests there on streets with names like McFly Way and the Shirley Muldowney Expressway are vital complements to the 10,000 miles of public road tests and 10 million virtual miles Waymo now racks up daily.
“Our intention, make no mistake, is to go fully driverless and let the public access this technology on public roads. We’ve been working so hard on that task,” he told a group of journalists touring the Castle this week. And while Krafcik, a long-time Hyundai and Ford executive who’s led the former Google X unit since 2015, won’t say exactly when Waymo goes commercial, he leaves no doubt that that’s coming.
“It’s fair to say we’re really close.”
A decade since a team of Carnegie Mellon University engineers won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge and eight years since Google began a (once) top-secret program to perfect autonomous car technology, Waymo appears to be at the leading edge of the self-driving revolution. After more than a $1 billion of R&D, it’s weathered the loss of key founding team members, faces numerous competing programs at auto and tech companies and is pursuing a rancorous lawsuit with Uber. Yet Waymo’s approach to testing, deployment and strategic partnerships is unfazed and laser-focused on building a business.
Google began doing vehicle tests at the Castle in 2012 after it outgrow a parking lot near company headquarters in Mountain View. While the old base’s tarmac is a bit past its prime, Waymo created a variety of new streets, a roundabout, cul-de-sacs and a highway-like section, all ringed by solar-powered streetlights. A few of the old Air Force buildings and barracks left when the base was decommissioned in the 1990s have been repurposed for Waymo engineers, while others appear to be slowly deteriorating.
On the Castle’s streets careless workers unloading a moving van might unexpectedly drop boxes in the path of a vehicle; rude drivers veer into a Waymo minivan’s lane abruptly and without signaling; and cars backing out of driveways in a simulated residential neighbor pull out when least expected. None of these scenarios appear to trouble the robots at the wheel.
In April Waymo began an “Early Rider” program in Chandler, Arizona, where residents who applied for the program can hail one its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to take them anywhere they request in the metro-Phoenix area.
Although technicians are in the front seats of those vehicles for added safety for now, Waymo technical chief Dmitri Dolgov told reporters this week the minivans already have Level 4 autonomous capability, meaning they can drive without a human at the wheel in most circumstances. “We’re testing everywhere, in downtown streets, on freeways, on all kinds of streets,” Dolgov said.
To show just how sophisticated Waymo’s system has become, it put reporters in the back of its vans for brief test rides around the 60-acre Castle complex with no human at the wheel. That’s not standard practice for any company developing autonomous vehicle technology. Notably, Waymo didn’t require any of the few dozen journalists in attendance to sign legal waivers before taking a ride.
During the 1.5-mile loop, technicians acting as pedestrians, riding bicycles or driving other cars crossed paths with autonomous Waymo minivans. In each case, none of these distractions proved to be a problem. It was as if a skilled invisible driver was at the wheel. Which is precisely Waymo’s goal.
Krafcik identified four applications for the technology that are “super obvious and likely first steps for us.”
The first is in a ridesharing service – that may or may not be under the Waymo brand. Second is for commercial delivery applications. “Things like trucking and logistics makes a lot of sense for a company like Waymo,” he said.
Waymo may also work with cities to provide “last-mile” services that help people get from their homes to a transit station, for example. Interestingly, supplying the technology for use in personal vehicles ranks only fourth in Waymo’s priorities.
“For sure we see this technology as having the potential to be transformative, to make a lot of really good change for the world.”