Smithsonian Magazine - - Shadows Of The Civil War -

en­vi­ron­ment, with a near-in­fi­nite litany of “if, then” rules, Waymo can now “gen­er­al­ize what those rules should be,” as Dol­gov puts it. He says this change has im­proved the com­pany’s pedes­trian-de­tec­tion abil­ity by a fac­tor of a hun­dred. “Google is among the best, if not the best, at com­plex soft­ware de­vel­op­ment,” says Bryan Reimer, an au­tonomous ve­hi­cle re­searcher and a di­rec­tor at MIT’s New Eng­land Univer­sity Trans­porta­tion Cen­ter. By mak­ing use of Google’s AI prow­ess, he goes on, “Waymo is far and away the leader in the au­to­mated ve­hi­cle space.”

And so, a decade from its start as a “moon­shot” ex­per­i­men­tal tech project, with lim­ited test runs on care­fully cho­sen routes in sunny, wide-av­enued cities across the coun­try, Waymo’s fleet of 600 self-driv­ing cars is now ready for prime time. Last year, in Phoenix, a 400-strong test pool of “Early Riders”—“pi­o­neers,” Waymo CEO John Kraf­cik calls them— signed up to beta-test a ride-hail­ing taxi ser­vice. They have been get­ting free trips around a chunk of the city since. Be­fore long, Waymo even be­gan re­mov­ing “safety driv­ers” from some of the cars—the first com­pany to go truly driver­less on pub­lic streets. And the Phoenix-area ser­vice will soon go pub­lic, mak­ing it the world’s first au­tonomous-ve­hi­cle com­mer­cial taxi ser­vice, which riders will hail via an Uber-like app, launch­ing by the end of the year.

Still, as one might ex­pect from a fleet of stu­dent driv­ers loosed upon the roads, there have been some bumps. In May, a Waymo mini­van was in­volved in a col­li­sion in Phoenix, when a car driv­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion swerved into its lane; there were no ma­jor in­juries, and po­lice con­cluded that the Waymo ve­hi­cle was not at fault. And this past sum­mer, the tech-fo­cused news site the In­for­ma­tion re­ported anec­do­tal com­plaints from area driv­ers about Waymo ve­hi­cles’ “sud­den moves or stops,” and noted that the self-driven cars some­times had trou­ble mak­ing un­pro­tected left turns (i.e., when the driver doesn’t have a ded­i­cated left-turn “ar­row” and has to de­cide when it’s safe to turn). Of course, peo­ple tend to find fault with other driv­ers; as Ge­orge Car­lin quipped, any­one driv­ing slower than him was an id­iot, any­one faster a ma­niac. And mak­ing un­pro­tected left turns is, sta­tis­ti­cally, among the great­est driv­ing haz­ards for hu­man driv­ers.

“We hu­mans can be good driv­ers when we are fo­cused,” Kraf­cik says. “But be­cause we are hu­man, we are of­ten not fo­cused.” And de­spite hav­ing a cen­tury to get bet­ter at driv­ing, we seem stuck in neu­tral, if not re­verse (see: tex­ting while driv­ing). Yet we’ve come to ac­cept a re­al­ity in which tens of thou­sands of peo­ple are killed on the roads each year, and many thou­sands more peo­ple se­ri­ously in­jured. Waymo’s vi­sion is one in which every sin­gle crash is me­thod­i­cally pored over the way reg­u­la­tors study air­line crashes, pre­cisely be­cause they have be­come so rare. This vi­sion was what con­vinced Kraf­cik to come to Waymo af­ter spend­ing the bulk of his ca­reer in the tra­di­tional au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try, where he worked to ad­vance tech­nolo­gies like an­tilock brakes and elec­tronic sta­bil­ity con­trol. The hard­ware has never been safer; the prob­lem is the soft­ware.

Kraf­cik notes that the Phoenix pro­gram isn’t only about re­fin­ing the com­plex tech­ni­cal

dy­nam­ics of nav­i­gat­ing self-driv­ing cars through the city. It’s also the first real-world ex­per­i­ment in­volv­ing the sub­tle so­cial eti­quette of driv­ing—the sort that evades com­puter logic. What should a car do, for in­stance, if it ar­rives at its des­ti­na­tion, but the pas­sen­ger has fallen asleep? (Rides now end with a bell chime.) Or, say a pas­sen­ger takes a Waymo taxi to the gro­cery store: “The dropoff point is at the front of the store,” Kraf­cik says. “But where should pickup be?” Shop­pers load­ing gro­ceries into Waymo cars were get­ting in the way of shop­pers who were just ar­riv­ing. “Our riders said, ‘This ser­vice is great, but could you per­haps pick me up closer to the gro­cery cart re­turn area, so I’m not so close to the flow of traf­fic?’ ”

More thought has also been go­ing into the rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it­self. In­side our Pacifica, a screen shows a radar-like, data-driven graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world in which the car is driv­ing. Pas­sen­gers’ feel­ings of dis­com­fort are less­ened, says Dol­gov, when they know what the car is see­ing. When a sig­nal was added to let riders know the car was slow­ing for a cross­walk—a safety fea­ture built into the sys­tem—“the per­cep­tion of the ac­tion,” Kraf­cik says, “went from ‘This is weird’ to ‘Wow, this thing is re­ally smart!’ ”

Be­yond driver­less cars them­selves, Waymo may even be a boon to pub­lic trans­porta­tion—for in­stance, a “last mile” so­lu­tion in which pas­sen­gers can be fer­ried to a tran­sit hub without the worry of driv­ing or park­ing. In July, Waymo and the Phoenix-area tran­sit au­thor­ity an­nounced a pilot pro­gram to al­low tran­sit work­ers (and in time, se­niors and the dis­abled) to hail Waymo cars from their homes to light-rail sta­tions and back.

There is just one thing Waymo will not be do­ing, Kraf­cik says: cre­at­ing its own ve­hi­cles. Its sole ef­fort, the “Fire­fly”—a pro­to­type two-seater without a steer­ing wheel or ped­als, un­veiled in 2015 and now re­tired—is dis­played in a lobby at Waymo’s head­quar­ters. “We’re not build­ing cars,” Kraf­cik says. “We’re build­ing the driver.”

From left: Waymo’s Fire­fly, Chrysler Pacifica and Jaguar I-PACE. Waymo is also test­ingself-driv­ing Peter­bilt trac­tor-trail­ers for freight de­liv­er­ies.

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