Waymo, previously known as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, revealed the world’s first self-driving minivan at Cobo Center last week that is equipped with both software and hardware exclusively developed by the tech company.
The white minivans, unmistakable with their bulbous rooflines and protruding fenders, will later this month start adding to the 2.5-million miles of road testing that Google has racked up, beginning first in California and Arizona.
Waymo, and its parent company Alphabet, have been working on self-driving vehicles for more than eight years.
On Monday last week, the tech company revealed a fully autonomous version of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with proprietary software and hardware developed by Waymo.
“Our latest innovations have brought us closer to scaling our technology to potentially millions of people every day,” Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “This vehicle brings together many firsts. It’s the world’s first self-driving minivan, capable of getting you door to door without a person at the wheel. It’s also the product of our first collaboration with an automaker, working on a mass production platform.”
Krafcik said Waymo’s sensors were developed by software experts who specialize in artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning.
“It’s all designed and built from the ground up by Waymo, with every part manufactured with one goal in mind: to safely handle the complex task of full autonomy,” Krafcik said in his prepared remarks. “We’re serious about creating fully self-driving cars that can help millions of people. And to do that we have to oversee both the self-driving software and the self-driving hardware.”
Krafcik said Waymo engineers have been able to reduce the development cost of LiDar, or the three-dimensional light detection radar that helps to guide self-driving cars, by 90 percent from 75,000 per vehicle several years ago.
While self-driving cars currently have medium-range Lidar systems engaged to tell them about what is happening in their immediate vicinity, Waymo’s new short- and long-range Lidar sensors are designed to provide the car’s computer brain with more information about what is far down the road as well as very near its bumpers.
As Krafcik spoke, a screen behind him demonstrated how the vehicle’s “trio of lasers sends out millions of laser points every second to build an incredibly high-resolution 3D picture.”
Not only can the system detect pedestrians, Krafcik said, it can also determine which way they’re facing.
“This is incredibly important as it helps us more accurately predict where someone will walk next,” Krafcik said.
Krafcik said the performance of Waymo’s self-driving software has quadrupled over the past year, dramatically reducing the number of times a human driver must intervene for a flummoxed self-driving car.
The company refers to those instances as “disengages,” and Krafcik said the number had dropped from 0.80 per 1,000 miles in 2015 to 0.20 per 1,000 miles today.
Last spring, Google inked a deal with Fiat Chrysler to outfit Pacifica minivans with Google’s radar, lasers and cameras. Google had said the deal was made to quickly add to its fleet in order to further test its systems and ready them for commercial use. In December, FCA finished developing the uniquely outfitted Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and delivered them to Waymo.
FCA isn’t the only automaker that Waymo is partnering with. Honda announced last month that it is has entered formal discussions with Waymo to integrate its self-driving technology with Honda vehicles. If they reach an agreement, Honda’s engineers in Silicon Valley and Japan would work closely with Waymo engineers based in Mountain View, California, and Novi.
Such partnerships, according to Chris Thomas, founder of Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners, highlight the expanding space that mobility offers for investment and development. Thomas, who spoke prior to Krafcik, noted other recently announced partnerships, including Microsoft and Nissan.
But Krafcik said Waymo is thinking bigger than a single vehicle or business model to create a self-driving technology platform. That, in turn, will help create products and service to make travel safer and easier for everyone.
Krafcik noted that when Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin started this project, they were inspired by the belief that self-driving technology could address some of society’s most significant problems.
“[The] 1.2 million deaths each year, 20 million people who can’t drive in the US alone, so many lifetimes wasted in traffic. We know there’s a better way,” Krafcik said. “We’re mastering the hardware and software to build a better driver for a fully self-driving car.”
In May, Waymo said it plans to open a 53,000-square foot development center in Novi. The Novi development center will serve as a hub that Google will use to work with a number of partners in the automotive industry.