On Sunday, the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) kicked off with a special focus: Autonomous driving.

This year, for the first time, NAIAS is presenting a separate tech space called AutoMobili-D, featuring a 120,000-square-foot expo to show off of the tech that makes autonomous driving possible, as well as a test track for autonomous vehicles–look out for TechRepublic coverage later this week. The tech space, occupied by startups, suppliers, and automakers, will include five aspects of tech: Autonomous driving, connected cars, e-mobility, mobility services, and urban mobility.

NAIAS made autonomy a featured topic on Sunday with a talk by Waymo CEO John Krafcik. Waymo, the self-driving spinoff from Google’s autonomous car project, launched in December 2016. Named to embrace a “new way forward,” the company recently unveiled photos of its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which it will begin testing on public streets in 2017. Waymo, which is focused on full autonomy, has also said it will unveil a ride-sharing service, potentially by the end of 2017.

“We don’t want to build a better car,” Krafcik said. “We want to build a better driver.” Since 2009, Google’s team had been developing and testing self-driving tech, and in 2015, in Austin, Texas, they accomplished the first fully self-driving ride on public roads, navigating everyday traffic, said Krafcik.

SEE: Roadshow by CNET’s full coverage of the Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS)

In May 2016, the group teamed up with Chrysler, and in six months, had produced 100 of the world’s “first self-driving minivans.”

Waymo’s fleet is designed “from the ground up” with a full hardware suite, capable of “safely handling the complex task of full autonomy,” which it will begin testing in Arizona and California by the end of January.

“Having our own hardware and software under one roof is incredibly important,” he said. Krafcik explained how Waymo’s tech, including self-developed LiDAR, cameras, and radar, is able to give the autonomous platform a clear vision of the environment. Waymo has also developed what Krafcik calls “the first of its kind long-range LiDAR, capable of seeing 360 degrees around the car.”

“Our LiDAR can see a football helmet, from two full football fields away,” he said. Importantly, the cost of developing it in-house is a fraction of what it used to be. Two years ago, he said, it cost $75,000. Today, Waymo has brought the cost down 90%.

Sunday’s schedule at NAIAS also included a panel on “the state of autonomy,” moderated by Roadshow by CNET editor in chief, Tim Stevens. The panelists, Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive, NVIDIA, David Strickland, counsel and spokesperson for the Self-Driving Coalition and Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Company, discussed how far along autonomous driving has come.

SEE: Google’s Waymo teases first photos of self-driving Chrysler minivan (ZDNet)

“We’re seeing a lot of investment and energy in lowering cost of the sensors,” said Washington. “Our engagement with Velodyne is an example of the kind of partnership that drives the tech in the direction of level 4 autonomy.” So Ford is working on figuring out how to shrink size, increase capability, scale, and drive cost down, said Washington.

Strickland talked about public acceptance of driverless cars. He sees a main concern as: “What is this piece of technology going to do to transform what I do today?”

And Shapiro spoke to the computing power required for autonomous driving. “The resolution is getting greater, and I love that,” said Shapiro. “It means we need more processing horsepower.”

“We love the data,” he said. “We see AI as a co-pilot in the car that can sense what’s going on. And full autonomy will happen sooner than we think,” said Shapiro.

“But we’re still not there yet with the amount of compute that needs to be there for full autonomy.”

Look for TechRepublic’s coverage of NAIAS all week, including videos and photos of all the latest car tech.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  • The 2017 North American International Auto Show kicked off by highlighting autonomous driving with talks by Waymo CEO John Krafcik, and a panel led by CNET Roadshow’s Tim Steven with representatives from Ford, NVIDIA, and the Self-Driving Coalition.
  • Waymo developed its own, in-house LiDAR, cameras, and radar, bringing costs down by 90%.
  • One of the key hurdles to driverless vehicle development is the amount of compute that needs to be there for full autonomy.