Artificial Intelligence

Waymo (formerly Google's Self-Driving Car Project): The smart person's guide

In 2016, Google's self-driving car project was reborn as Waymo, a new Alphabet business. TechRepublic's comprehensive guide explains how Waymo's technology works.

Driverless technology has come a long way, with Tesla pledging a "fully self-driving capable" vehicle in 2017, Ford promising fully-autonomous cars—no steering wheel, no driver required—by 2021, and dozens of other carmakers and tech companies joining up to create driverless systems.

These vehicles are set to have a major impact on the trucking industry. They will also shake up the concept of vehicle ownership, as Tesla, Uber, and Lyft have all mentioned that ride-sharing will be part of their future plans.

But while many companies are invested in the race to develop a driverless vehicle, one player may have a big edge. Google has been working on driverless technology since 2009, and Waymo CEO John Krafcik says they now have more than 2 million self-driven miles, which has provided the company with "over 300 years of human driving experience."

So what has Waymo learned from the experience? And what is its current strategy? This comprehensive guide explains the technology that powers Waymo's driverless cars.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is Waymo? Waymo is a self-driving technology company owned by Alphabet. It was founded in December 2016 by Google self-driving car project CEO John Krafcik, as a spin-off of that project.
  • Why Waymo matters: Driverless cars are poised to have a major impact on businesses and society, and many see Waymo as being on the cutting edge when it comes to self-driving technology. At the 2017 North American International Auto Show, Roadshow by CNET gave the "Disruptor of the Year" award to Krafcik.
  • Who does Waymo affect? Waymo is still in testing mode, and is not yet available to the public. However, it plans to release a driverless vehicle in 2020. Whether it is unveiled in the form of an autonomous truck, shuttle, ride-share, or consumer car, a driverless vehicle will affect virtually all people on the road.
  • When is Waymo happening? The Google self-driving car project has been driving on California roads and collecting data since 2009. Waymo was founded in December 2016 and in January 2017, and began testing its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans on public roads in Arizona and California. It plans to release a driverless vehicle in 2020.
  • How to take advantage of Waymo: Businesses and professionals could find many uses for this kind of technology in the future. Companies could create ride pools to work, transforming the commuter experience into a productive time for employees. People previously unable to drive—like those too young for a driver's license, or those who are physically impaired—could also have a new option for transportation.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (TechRepublic)

What is Waymo?

Waymo is a self-driving technology company, founded in December 2016. It's a spinoff from Google's self-driving car project, which began in 2009. Waymo stands for "a new way forward in mobility."

As of February 2017, Waymo is testing three autonomous vehicles: A prototype, the Lexus RX450h, and 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. It plans to have 100 of the driverless minivans on the road by the end of 2017.

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Chrysler Pacifica minivan, Lexus RX450h, and prototype.

Image: Waymo

Waymo's fleet is designed "from the ground up," with a hardware suite capable of "safely handling the complex task of full autonomy," according to Krafcik. Waymo's tech includes self-developed LiDAR, cameras, and radar, which offer a clear vision of the environment. The company developed a long-range LiDAR, capable of seeing 360 degrees around the car, which Krafcik said is "the first of its kind," capable of "seeing a football helmet from two full football fields away."

Creating the tech in-house brought costs down substantially. The LiDAR cost $75,000 in 2015. As of January 2017, the cost has been cut 90%—to under $10,000.

Waymo's vehicles have also been testing very well on public roads. They drove nearly 636,000 miles in 2016—almost 50% more than in 2015. And "disengagements," when the driver needed to regain control of the vehicle, dropped from 341 to 124.

From a tech perspective, many see Krafcik as pushing the boundaries in autonomous driving. Tim Stevens, editor at large at Roadshow by CNET, called Waymo "one of the most progressive companies for testing autonomous vehicles."

Gartner analyst Michael Ramsey also said he believes the full autonomous package is an important part of Waymo's strategy. "The revenue for the business could be substantial if they license both the software controlling driverless cars and the hardware sensor suite that makes it function," Ramsey said. "Waymo is years ahead of the competition."

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Why Waymo matters

Waymo (and the many automakers and companies creating driverless tech) argues that autonomous vehicles will have a big impact on driving safety. In 2014, there were 1.25 million deaths worldwide caused by vehicle crashes. And the number is rising: In 2015, there was a 7.2% increase in traffic fatalities, which is the biggest spike in over half a century. By removing control from drivers, Waymo and others believe that fatalities will drop substantially.

While we are still at least a few years from seeing fully-autonomous vehicles on the road, the technology that enables radar, cameras, and GPS has become very advanced, and many automakers plan to have semi-autonomous vehicles available by 2020.

Right now, there are many questions for regulators. Where will liability rest? What will licensing look like? Will new drivers still be required to get traditional licenses, even if they aren't behind the wheel? What about young people, or older people with disabilities? What will be required to operate these new vehicles?

Not all states currently allow autonomous driving on the road. And the first documented fatality in a Tesla engaged in Autopilot mode in May 2016 raised concerns that the technology has been released too quickly.

But regulators are starting to pay attention. In September 2016, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) released guidelines on the development of autonomous vehicle technology. And in January 2017, the DOT established a new committee on automation.

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Who Waymo affects

Autonomous driving is currently only available to the public in limited settings—like Uber's driverless fleet in Pittsburgh, or Singapore's autonomous taxis. But semi-autonomous driving, like Tesla's Autopilot, which has automatic braking, auto-steer, lane-changing, and other safety features, is available to consumers. As the technology becomes available, we are likely to see a big impact on people who drive for a living—like truck drivers, or Uber drivers—as well as people who use these vehicles in ride shares or shuttles.

Whether a company is making quick deliveries, transporting employees, shuttling customers, or making long-haul shipments, driverless vehicles will have a big impact on business. These vehicles will also impact regulators, lawmakers, insurance companies, and many other industries. They could also have an environmental impact, potentially reducing emissions through rideshares and shuttles.

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When is Waymo happening?

Google's self-driving car project completed its first fully-autonomous drive on a public road in 2015, when a blind man in Austin, TX, got a ride in one of its prototypes.

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Image: Waymo

In May 2016, the group teamed up with Chrysler. In December 2016, Waymo officially launched as a new company, under Alphabet, and announced that the partnership had produced 100 of the world's "first self-driving minivans."

As of February 2017, Waymo is testing in four locations: Kirkland, WA; Mountain View, CA; Metro Phoenix, AZ; Austin, TX. It plans to have 100 autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans on the road by the end of 2017. Waymo also announced that it will have a fully self-driving vehicle available by 2020.

There are also unconfirmed rumors that sometime in 2017, Waymo will launch a robot taxi service.

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How to take advantage of Waymo

While you can't actually drive in a Waymo vehicle at this point, you can still get involved in the development process. According to the website, residents of Mountain View, CA, Austin, TX, Kirkland, WA, and the Metro Phoenix area—areas where Waymo is testing—can give feedback, participate in research, and receive updates.

Waymo says it will be available to the public in 2020, at which point businesses and passengers will likely have ways to take advantage of the convenience of a self-driven vehicle.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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