Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, the Internet, apps, and other things that beep or blink. You can find him covering policy issues at Yahoo Finance, answering consumer-tech questions at USA Today, offering telecom guidance at Wirecutter and showing up at various other online and (sometimes) print outlets. He has met most of the founders of the Internet.
In the rush to develop autonomous vehicles, Waymo’s style separates it from flashier rivals like Uber and Tesla. And the company likes it that way.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — A day after announcing a small partnership with Lyft, Waymo invited members of the press to its headquarters to share a message: We’re not Tesla, and we’re not Uber either.
Instead, the autonomous-vehicle developer—owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet—emphasized its patient pace.
“We’re not building a car,” chief technology officer Dmitri Dolgov said. “We’re really building a driver.”
This driver’s gestation period has now exceeded 10 years. It’s been nearly four years since the company’s first driverless ride on public roads, and two years since Waymo began testing its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans around Phoenix. This week, the company announced it will deploy 10 vehicles in partnership with Lyft in the Phoenix area, an opportunity to introduce the driver to more people.
The company insists it will not be rushed. That’s a glaring contrast to Uber’s hard-charging efforts, which skidded to a halt after one of its self-driving test cars killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018. It’s also notably different from Tesla, which incrementally updates its “Autopilot” software for cars that are already on the road, while casually reminding drivers that “Autopilot” doesn’t mean the car is fully autonomous.
Waymo’s more measured approach could indeed be a savvy move: The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that consumer confidence in autonomous vehicles is low. In this year’s edition of the survey, only 54 percent of respondents in 27 markets worldwide said they trust AVs. In the U.S., only 40 percent said they trust the technology.
Still, Waymo also sees itself as able to advance autonomous vehicles faster than its flashier competitors.
“We are designing all of the core components of our technology in-house,” Dolgov said. “By having this tight development loop between hardware and software, we just iterate on the technology that much faster.”
He and two other executives—research head Drago Anguelov and hardware head Satish Jeyachandran—discussed the importance of Waymo’s array of sensors.
“By combining the power of all of the sensors you see here, we are able to have a deep understanding of the surroundings,” Jeyachandran said. For example, Waymo employs three different Lidar laser-scanning systems: one sees three football fields ahead; one scans the medium-range; and one focuses on the short-range, but with a wider field of view.
Those sensors allow a high degree of computational prowess. They also add a noticeable bulk to the cars’ exterior. On Waymo’s Pacificas, they leave the car festooned with bulbous extensions. Don’t expect this ugliness factor to vanish.
That’s perhaps one reason why Tesla CEO Elon Musk called Lidar “lame” at that carmaker’s “Autonomy Day” in Palo Alto last month. He said Tesla’s practically invisible cameras would provide a sufficient field of vision for their computers.
Dolgov’s dismissive take on that: “What about the bold statement by Elon? You should probably ask Elon.”
Anguelov, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of using machine learning and all of Google’s capabilities in that area to teach cars how to read the roads.
“Machine learning is very infrastructure-intensive,” he said, adding that it helps that Waymo is part of Alphabet.
And while advocates of 5G wireless broadband often tout its importance to autonomous vehicles, Anguelov said Waymo’s cars can work in a no-G environment. While connectivity can help Waymo vehicles inform each other about traffic, “anything safety-critical” relies on onboard, offline processing.
Waymo’s presentation left little doubt of the company’s commitment and capability—it continues to lead others in miles tested in California. But the company left its next steps mysterious, a longstanding Silicon Valley tradition that’s still notably more prudent than, say, promising full autonomy next year, as Musk did
When will Waymo expand its ride-hailing service to other locations? “We have a road map and some plans to expand to locations beyond Phoenix.”
(Dolgov noted that Waymo is already testing its cars in places like Seattle and Michigan; in an appearance at South by Southwest last year, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said snow and ice remained challenges for its system.)
What metric or metrics does Waymo use to determine the safety of its system? “I don’t have a one-line answer,” Dolgov said—a reply that left the Los Angeles Times reporter who asked the question visibly fuming.
When will Waymo stop having a human safety driver in each ride-hailing vehicle in Phoenix? “We will share more as it goes.”