If you haven’t heard of Waymo, you’re probably not alone. I didn’t know of the work of Waymo until I started reading up on the phenomenon that is known as “self-driving” cars. Waymo is the Google self-driving project that became a standalone subsidiary in December 2016. Last year, Waymo launched a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, as a limited trial of this technology using real people. Today, over 400 riders have signed up to use the new car service.
How does it work? Waymo engineers use sensors, software and cameras to operate driverless cars. After test driving and simulating driverless trips for over 10 million miles, Waymo engineers believe that they can ensure safe driving conditions under different weather conditions, including snow and rain. In Arizona, riders young and old have signed up for the trial program. Fleet dispatchers arrange rides to the gym, shopping, work and entertainment over an app, much like ride sharing services today.
In addition, Waymo has partnered with public transportation providers in Phoenix to connect users of transit with a ride for the “last mile” of their trip, getting people to final destinations in areas unserved by transit or public transportation. What this means is transit riders can get off buses and light rail and connect to Waymo for a ride to their final stop, whether it is work, home or a doctor’s appointment.
While the pilot appears mostly successful, it’s not without some controversy according to reports published recently in the Arizona Republic. Chandler police have documented 21 incidents in which people have harassed or threatened driverless vehicles used in the trial. Since self-driving cars use radar, lidar, and cameras to navigate, they are able to capture these events in enough detail to identify those involved. Still, it must be a little intimidating to riders when opponents of this technology actually assault vehicles.
Next up is a road test of self-driving for trucks. Earlier this year Waymo launched a pilot in Atlanta where self-driving trucks carry freight bound for Google’s data centers located there. The launch in Georgia comes after a year of road tests with trucks in California and Arizona. While the technology is similar to cars, it takes a bit more technology to maneuver a fully loaded truck and trailer.
In my home state of Minnesota, outgoing Governor Mark Dayton just announced recommendations for connected and automated vehicles. Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle chaired an advisory council that recommended legislation to authorize a pilot program for safe testing of self-driving vehicles and platooning of trucks. I can’t think of a better place to test whether self-driving cars and trucks really can operate under all weather conditions.