Waymo rolls out au­ton­o­mous vans with­out hu­man drivers

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - By TOM KR­ISHER

DE­TROIT (AP) - A self-driv­ing car com­pany cre­ated by Google is pulling the hu­man backup driver from be­hind the steer­ing wheel and will test ve­hi­cles on pub­lic roads with only an em­ployee in the back seat.

The move by Waymo, which started Oct. 19 with an au­to­mated Chrysler Paci­fica mini­van in the Phoenix sub­urb of Chan­dler, Ari­zona, is a ma­jor step to­ward ve­hi­cles driv­ing them­selves with­out hu­man back­ups on pub­lic roads.

Waymo, which is owned by Google’s par­ent com­pany Al­pha­bet, is in a race with other com­pa­nies such as Del­phi, Gen­eral Mo­tors, In­tel, Uber, Ap­ple and Lyft to bring au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to the pub­lic. The com­pa­nies say the ro­bot cars are safer than hu­man drivers be­cause they don’t get drowsy, dis­tracted or drunk.

Google has long stated its in­tent to skip driver-as­sist sys­tems and go di­rectly to fully au­ton­o­mous driv­ing. The Waymo em­ployee in the back seat won’t be able to steer the mini­van, but like all pas­sen­gers, will be able to press a but­ton to bring the van safely to a stop if nec­es­sary, Waymo said.

Within a “few months,” the fully au­ton­o­mous vans will be­gin car­ry­ing vol­un­teer pas­sen­gers who are now tak­ing part in a Phoenix-area test that in­cludes use of backup drivers.

Waymo CEO John Kraf­cik, who was to make the an­nounce­ment Tues­day at a con­fer­ence in Por­tu­gal, said the com­pany in­tends to ex­pand the test­ing to the en­tire 600-square-mile Phoenix area and even­tu­ally bring the tech­nol­ogy to more cities around the world. It’s con­fi­dent that its sys­tem can han­dle all sit­u­a­tions on pub­lic roads with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion, he said.

“To have a ve­hi­cle on pub­lic roads with­out a per­son at the wheel, we’ve built some unique safety fea­tures into this mini­van,” Kraf­cik said in re­marks pre­pared for the con­fer­ence. “Our sys­tem runs thou­sands of checks on it­self every sec­ond. With these checks, our sys­tems can in­stantly di­ag­nose any prob­lems and pull over or come to a safe stop if needed.”

The com­pany also says it has re­dun­dant brak­ing, steer­ing, power and com­put­ing sys­tems so it never has to rely on a hu­man driver.

Sam Abuel­samid, se­nior an­a­lyst for Nav­i­gant Re­search, says Waymo’s tests with­out a hu­man backup are the first to his knowl­edge on pub­lic roads at nor­mal speeds. The com­pany picked Phoenix be­cause weather con­di­tions are ideal for test­ing with no snow and lit­tle rain, he said, adding that Waymo knows its sys­tem isn’t ready yet for in­clement weather even with cam­era, radar and laser sen­sors.

“This demon­strates Waymo’s con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of these ve­hi­cles to func­tion at least in this en­vi­ron­ment,” Abuel­samid said.

He ex­pects Gen­eral Mo­tors and its Cruise Automation au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle unit to be the next to an­nounce test­ing with­out hu­man back­ups, fol­lowed by auto parts maker Del­phi, which re­cently ac­quired Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy self-driv­ing soft­ware startup nuTon­omy.

Waymo wouldn’t say how many ve­hi­cles will be in the ini­tial test or ex­actly how wide an area it will cover. The test will take place in a small area at first, then spread to por­tions of five cities and 100 square miles in the Phoenix area. Even­tu­ally it will go to whole metro area.

The com­pany also wouldn’t say how many mini­vans are tak­ing part in the ini­tial test­ing. It has a fleet of 100 au­ton­o­mous vans in Phoenix, with plans to add 500.

Waymo says it has an op­er­a­tions team that can an­swer ques­tions from the cars’ com­put­ers, but the cars will make driv­ing de­ci­sions.

The com­pany said it has been test­ing its au­ton­o­mous sys­tems for the past eight years with more than 5 mil­lion miles logged on pub­lic roads.

Self-driv­ing car com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the auto in­dus­try and tech com­pa­nies is fierce. The stakes are so high that Waymo is cur­rently su­ing ride-hail­ing com­pany Uber, al­leg­ing that one of its for­mer man­agers stole its trade se­crets and took them with him when he joined Uber in 2016 as part of an elab­o­rate scheme. The trial in that high-pro­file case is sched­uled to be­gin in early De­cem­ber.

Waymo is hop­ing to in­fuse its tech­nol­ogy into ride-hail­ing ser­vices such as its cur­rent part­ner, Lyft, and big-rig truck­ing com­pa­nies. It also in­tends to li­cense its au­to­mated sys­tem to au­tomak­ers such as Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles, which makes the Paci­fica mini­van.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF TECHCRUNCH.COM

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