21 Oct 20

Waymo launches fully self-driving cars - again

Waymo has launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s not the first time this has happened, but there are some interesting differences: this time, there’s no safety driver on board and passengers are not limited to those vetted by Waymo. Could this be the breakthrough automous vehicle technology needs?

Let’s get the backstory out of the way first. Waymo is the self-driving unit of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It has been testing self-driving ridehailing cars in a 100-mile area around Phoenix, Arizona since 2017. In 2018, the company started taking passengers in a programme called Waymo One, but the only passengers allowed on board were people that had been vetted by Waymo, which involves signing an NDA barring them from disclosing any information about trips. According to the company, Waymo One has 1,500 monthly active users.

Now, Waymo is switching things up one gear. It is removing the safety driver that has so far always been at the wheel of each self-driving car to take control if the computer gets overwhelmed, making the vehicles truly self-driving for the first time. They will still be monitored by remote employees but Waymo maintains the cars will make most of the driving decisions by themselves.

There are still some caveats. Waymo vehicles without a safety driver will only operate in about half of the 100-mile test area and in a first stage, only Waymo One users will be invited to use the truly self-driving cars. They are allowed to take friends and family along, though.

“In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik, but he didn’t provide an exact timeline.

Tesla Autopilot

Autonomous vehicle technology has progressed over the years, but there are signs it is still not ready for a large-scale roll-out in less controlled areas. Highway driving is already quite possible, but adding chaotic city traffic with pedestrians and cyclists to the equation can still dumbfound AV computers.

Electric car manufacturer Tesla has made great strides in self-driving technology, even though CEO Elon Musk has been known to be overly optimistic in making promises.

In July, he announced Teslas will be capable of completely autonomous driving by the end of the year. This may be a bold claim, knowing Autopilot is still considered to be level 2 technology on a 5-level scale. Also, once technology is ready, legislation needs to follow – most jurisdictions still do not allow for driverless cars.

Nevertheless, the close to one million Teslas with Autopilot that are driving around today have fed Teslas algorithms substantially, giving the company an edge over many of its competitors.

More than ever, the race to offer the first truly self-driving vehicles that can drive in any environment is on.

Image copyright: Waymo

Authored by: Benjamin Uyttebroeck