Waymo: Google’s Self-Driving Car Goes to Market, WIRED
Google’s Self-Driving Car Company Is Eventually Here
Google’s Self-Driving Car Company Is Ultimately Here
When Steve Mahan was a kid in the 1960s, his mother would sometimes wake him in the early hours of the morning to observe the hours of television coverage preceding the launch of the Mercury space missions. “We would hear about all of the preparations, all of the technology, everything that led up to these moments,” Mahan says. “And then we would count down 'till you eventually got to zero and ignition, and one of those rockets commences bellowing fire and smoke, and leisurely starts to creep away from the grapples. Then your thoughts always turn to the man in the capsule who's being shot off into space.”
Now sixty three and having lost his look, Mahan has become one of those capsule-bound explorers. In October 2015, he became the very first member of the public to rail in Google's self-driving pod-like prototype, alone and on public roads. No steering wheel, no pedals, no human on board to step in should something go wrong.
Google engineers say that Mahan's uneventful, ten-minute jaunt around Austin, Texas—which they talked about publicly for the very first time today—was a key milestone on the road to the news they're now announcing.
After eight years and two million miles, the tech giant is taking its self-driving car project out of X, its division dedicated to moonshots like internet-slinging balloons and delivery drones .
Beginning today, the drive for autonomy is called Waymo, a standalone company under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. And that means it's time to take the technology to market.
“We're a self-driving car company with a mission to make it safe and effortless for people and things to get around,” says Waymo CEO John Krafcik. What that means, exactly, is still an open question: Krafcik mentioned ridesharing, trucking, logistics, even selling individual use vehicles to individual consumers.
Pushing Waymo into the real world is something of a catchup stir for Google. The company once predominated the conversation about autonomy, insisting it was possible years before most companies took it earnestly. But lately, that preeminence has faded. In the past year, Uber, Tesla, Baidu, Ford, and General Motors have announced aggressive plans to bring fully self-driving cars to market , with launch dates ranging from next year to 2021. Meantime, pressure to prove Google's X projects could produce on their promises mounted within the company , and a series of executives abandoned Google's project , including longtime technical lead Chris Urmson, who was reportedly unhappy with Krafcik's leadership.
As Uber and nuTonomy welcomed the public into self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Singapore, respectively, Google's car team disregarded questions about how and when it would commercialize its tech. Reports claimed it was scaling back its ambitions . The effort commenced to look like an also-ran. Launching Waymo, at least in the public eye, puts the robot-car division back in the race.
Leading the Blind
Google has long pitched self-driving cars as a way to cut down on traffic deaths (more than a million worldwide every year) and as a instrument for those who cannot drive. It's an altruistic spin on an industry whose potential value Boston Consulting Group pegs at $42 billion a year by two thousand twenty five . So putting Steve Mahan in the car feels like a publicity stunt— look at our good deeds! —until you talk to the man.
Mahan began losing his vision at the age of 37, in 1990, due to a infrequent genetic disease called nanophthalmos. He was blind in one eye within a few years, and lost glance in the other after a laser treatment in 2004. (Doctors salvaged about ten percent of his vision, but expect him to lose even that, eventually.) He stopped driving soon after, and for the past decade has relied on generous family and friends, and onerous paratransit services, to get from his suburban home in Morgan Hill, California, to anywhere else. Losing that independence, he says, was traumatic.
Hitting the green “go” button in the Google pod washed away some of that anguish, at least for a moment. “I was given the chance to be the man that I was before, for the time that I spent in that car,” Mahan says. “It just let me be a entire person again.”
Mahan had ridden in Google's car twice before. In 2012, he railed with an engineer and police escort; in 2014, in a closed parking lot. Two Last year's Austin expedition was his very first solo tour, and the closest approximation to what an autonomous car service could suggest. “This tour was about displaying that we can actually take that capability and turn it into something that's ready to go out into the real world,” says Nathaniel Fairfield, who runs Waymo's planning, control, and routing team, and has been on board since the project launched.
By early 2015, Fairfield thought they were getting close: The cars were clocking total days at Google's testing grounds without needing human takeovers. They had driven 1.Two million miles on public roads and could pull over for emergency vehicles. They could detect and brake for squirrels, and read palm signals from cops and construction workers. They knew when to honk politely ( Just making sure you see me here ) and when to blare it ( You're about to wedge into me! ). Then the team spent the next year putting another 800,000 miles on the fleet's collective odometer, to fine tune everything. And it gave Ten,000 rails to employees and “guests.” 1
“Bringing the technology to that point has instructed us an enormous amount about what it's going to take to scale,” Fairfield says, “to the point where we can bring it to everyone, everywhere.”
Expand and Conquer
No matter the technology's capability, the leap from the experimental phase to “everyone and everywhere” presents a list of labors to make Hercules shudder. Waymo needs to prove its self-driving system works in every situation, then get the public—and public officials—to accept that proof. Alphabet's newest company must map every inch of every street it plans to travel, get that data onto its cars, and figure out how to keep those maps updated.
It has to drive down costs, especially for the car's crucial space-mapping Lidar unit—a unit like that spinning KFC bucket on the roof can cost ems of thousands of dollars right now. Google's making some of its own sensing hardware, in a bid to keep prices down. “You'll have to make it cost effective,” says Xavier Mosquet at Boston Consulting Groups, especially on hardware, an area where Google has had problems in the past. Two