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Waymo Gives Lo-Down on Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving firm looks to take fear out of autonomy.

by on Oct.31, 2017

Waymo launched a pilot ride-sharing program in Phoenix using autonomous Chrysler minivans.

Waymo decided to provide a glimpse behind the curtain, allowing a group of media to take test rides in the company’s autonomous vehicles, explaining the testing process of the vehicles and sharing some insights about the company’s future.

The company, which is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has been testing self-driving Chrysler Pacificas and Lexus SUVs in several cities around the U.S., including a trial run at ride-hailing in Phoenix.

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The media event featured several structured events at the company’s facility, a former military base, near Atwater, California, designed to replicate real-life situations encountered by test vehicles on test runs, such as cars broken down on the side of the road or roadways littered with debris. 

“In level four mode, you can imagine a completely empty car coming to where you are, you open the door, hop in the back seat, and it can take you — relaxed and happy, perhaps it has Wi-Fi — wherever it is you want to go,” John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo told theverge.com. “That’s what we’re striving to achieve every day.”

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It also gave many a first real look at what a self-driving minivan will look like on the inside. Until now, there were stories of bubble cars with big red button to shut the car down instead of a steering wheel and foot pedals.

The test vehicles featured a pretty standard interior for a minivan, but also a blue “start ride” button, a “pull over” allows a rider to stop the trip, and a “help” button, similar to GM’s OnStar, in the event the vehicle breaks down or there is some other emergency.

Waymo chief John Krafcik outlined some of the company's plans for the future, including selling or licensing its autonomous technology.

Waymo’s Pacificas featured screens on the back of each of the driver and passenger seat headrests that showed a top-down visual map of what the van’s sensors allow it to “see,” according to The Verge. Unlike the raw “X view” version Waymo engineers use, passengers see something that’s simpler and more uniform making it easier to read.

Other vehicles and cyclists are represented by blue rectangles. Emergency vehicles are distinguished by a red light that circulates around the rectangle. The symbol for pedestrians appears in a ghostly white hue. And orange traffic cones look like orange traffic cones, only tiny.

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Actually, by letting the media see some of the actual testing procedures, talk to engineers and take rides in the autonomous test vehicles the company is looking to assuage public concerns and fears about self-drivers.

According to a AAA study earlier this year, nearly three-quarters of all drivers are afraid of riding in a self-driving vehicle.

“A great race towards autonomy is underway and companies are vying to introduce the first driverless cars to our roadways,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “However, while U.S. drivers are eager to buy vehicles equipped with autonomous technology, they continue to fear a fully self-driving vehicle.”

Waymo has established partnerships with several companies, including Fiat Chrysler, Lyft and Avis. The deals with Lyft and Avis would likely only be successful if the fear or worry about fully autonomous cars can be mitigated in the near future.

Krafcik suggested earlier this year the company was looking to commercialize the technology and during the media event in California he did outline the types of ventures Waymo was considering, such as ride-hailing and ride-sharing, trucking and logistics.

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The company will also work with cities to help better connect residents to public transportation. It may also sell or license its autonomous tech to other companies.

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