Google’s self-driving division Waymo has officially decided to make a fully autonomous vehicle, rather than develop an autopilot feature for driver assistance. Now we know more about how they are using and testing their self-driving cars.
Waymo began focusing on autonomous technology just days after receiving negative driver reports in 2015. Originally, the autopilot mode was intended for highway travel only and drivers still had to pay attention. If there was ever an incident, the vehicle would alert the driver and they would have to manually take over. After numerous reports of people sleeping, texting, or doing work while in autopilot, Waymo knew they had to pursue full level five autonomy. If drivers aren’t willing to pay attention, they won’t be ready in case of an emergency. The only way to perfect the feature was to completely remove human intervention from the equation.
Since then, the company has made great strides and even has a driverless service available in Phoenix, Arizona. The new tech was implemented on a fleet of 100 hybrid Chrysler Pacificas from Fiat Chrysler. The self-diving van offers passengers two buttons to press. One button will begin the ride after the passenger is safely buckled up, while the other tells the vehicle to pull over at its next opportunity. The car handles the rest of the heavy lifting on its own.
TechCrunch was able to get Darrell Etherington “behind the wheel” of a working Waymo Pacifica and he was incredibly impressed with the ride. His ride was limited to a controlled environment that was closed off to the public, but it included intersections with traffic lights, roundabouts, cars pulled over by the side of the road, pedestrians, and other obstacles. Granted, these were all staged for the purpose of the test ride, but Waymo certainly got their point across.
Although the car was in the controlled space, an unexpected event did take place during Darrell’s experience. He reported that a squirrel jumped out in front of the vehicle. After dashing onto the street, the squirrel turned back and decided to wait for the car to pass. The vehicle began to slow down on its own, fully recognizing the steps it might have to take. Rather than slamming the breaks or swerving off the road, the car controlled its speed to give plenty of reaction time depending on how the situation played out.
Many drivers don’t handle animals on the road well, but the way the car handled the situation is incredible. Waymo’s hard work has clearly been paying off, and as crazy as it may seem, we are extraordinarily close to real autonomous cars.