How Waymo Is Working to Bring Driverless Car to the World's Highways

How Waymo Is Working to Bring Driverless Car to the World's Highways
This Is About Self-Driving Car Technology, Not a Car
Here’s How It Generally Works
Sensors are Critical to its Operation
It Needs Software to Work
How Waymo Responds to Real Life
Waymo Has Logged Serious Time On the Road
Here’s Where Testing Is Happening
The Problem with Human Error
Waymo Is Expanding Efforts Next Year
The Technology Is Still Likely Years Off
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How Waymo Is Working to Bring Driverless Car to the World's Highways

Google's driverless car technology development program has been spun off into independent company charged with putting safe, reliable self-driving cars on U.S. highways by 2020.

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This Is About Self-Driving Car Technology, Not a Car

To be clear, Waymo isn’t developing a car that will compete with Chevrolet or Ford in the self-driving vehicle market. Instead, Waymo is developing self-driving car technology that it wants to sell to carmakers. Those carmakers will then bundle the technology in their future vehicles. Waymo will simply act as the solutions provider in its strategy.

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Here’s How It Generally Works

In general, Waymo’s self-driving car technology uses sensors and software to determine what’s on the road and respond accordingly. It’s able to recognize possible obstacles, pedestrians, and even road work at up to 200 yards away, giving the technology ample time to interact with the vehicle and maneuver it away from possible danger.

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Sensors are Critical to its Operation

Waymo’s sensors are critical to the operation of its self-driving car technology. The sensors are placed around the vehicle and can “see” in every direction. The sensors have become extremely sensitive. For instance, the sensors can now determine when a cyclist is raising his or her arm and feed that input to the software, which ultimately tells the car what to do.

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It Needs Software to Work

Once a sensor has recognized an input, like the cyclist’s arm, the software in real time analyzes what’s happening and tells the car to respond accordingly. So in the case of the cyclist, the software will interpret the person’s arm movement as a sign that he or she wants to make a turn. The software will then tell the car’s driving technology to move the vehicle out of the way and avoid a collision. It’s one of the many things the software can do to keep cars and pedestrians safe.

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How Waymo Responds to Real Life

While driving a car on an open road might be simple, Waymo says its technology is effective in complex situations. The sensors are constantly analyzing everything around them and when unexpected changes occur, like a lane has been closed or a train is passing through, Waymo’s technology can respond on the fly. In addition, Waymo has made the technology defensive, meaning it will do its best to stay out of other cars’ blind spots and keep the car away from large vehicles.

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Waymo Has Logged Serious Time On the Road

Waymo’s team has been working on self-driving car technology since 2009, first as a part of Google and now as a standalone company. In that time, the company has logged more than 2 million miles on the road. Waymo has also driven 1 billion miles in a simulation just in 2016.

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Here’s Where Testing Is Happening

Waymo kicked off its road testing on its technology in Mountain View, Calif. in 2009. In 2015, the company expanded the testing to Austin, TX and earlier this year, it added Phoenix, AZ and Kirkland, WA to its stable of cities. The testing allows Waymo to try out its technology in cities, rural areas, and suburbs.

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The Problem with Human Error

While Waymo won’t say how many vehicle crashes its technology should avert, the company said that there were 1.25 million crashes in the U.S. in 2014 and nearly 33,000 deaths. Ninety-four percent of those crashes were caused by human error or choice. By taking humans out of the car-driving equation, it’s possible the number of crashes and deaths will fall.

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Waymo Is Expanding Efforts Next Year

Looking ahead, Waymo says it plans to expand its efforts in 2017. The company will add 100 new minivans to its fleet of cars and have employees get behind the wheel to analyze how the vehicles perform on the road. That information will then be given to Waymo’s engineering team to tweak the technology for additional safety.

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The Technology Is Still Likely Years Off

While Waymo’s technology is moving along at a rapid rate and the company will be broadening its efforts next year, it’s unlikely its self-driving car will be coming to vehicles anytime soon. Depending on the rate of regulation adoption and carmaker strategy, it might take several years for self-driving car technology to become ubiquitous. Waymo itself hasn’t provided a timeline on exactly when its technology will initially be available in cars consumers can actually purchase.

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