You’ve got to taxi before you can take off.
That certainly applies to airplanes, but it also serves to describe the rollout plan that has been set in place for a self-driving taxi service being run by Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, Inc. – the latest step in the development of self-driving cars.
John Krafcik, Waymo CEO, participated in an Q&A session on the future evolution of autonomous driving at the annual CTA-sponsored Leaders in Technology dinner during CES 2019, offering updates on its big-picture progression and discussing many angles, both pro and con.
This year marks the 10th since the Google-initiated self-driving project’s birth. Waymo’s first commercial service began in limited fashion in December in Phoenix, with the cars containing both passengers and “safety drivers,” present as concierges, he said – “but the cars are driven by Waymo,” he emphasized. “While humans are reliant on eyes, these cars are equipped with multiple radars, 19 cameras and their sensors see 360 degrees – a really good view of the world.” The cars’ sensor suite enables the vehicles to “see” even through fog, slowing the vehicles down as needed in such situations or in other unfavorable weather conditions such as icy roads.
Liz Claman, Fox Business Network personality and Krafcik’s interviewer at the event, pointed out that 94 percent of all car accidents are due to human error; Krafcik added that globally, 1.35 million lives are lost on the roads every year. “This technology has the opportunity to make a huge improvement in that figure,” he said.
Krafcik filled in many of the blanks about the cars’ capabilities during the session. Following are some facts that came to light:
- They can “hear” sirens – they have three forward- and three rear-facing microphones.
- Their “behavior” in parking lots is still a challenge –There are not as many rules there, no clearly marked lanes, shopping cart impediments – things that were not anticipated in the developmental stages but that will be ironed out with time and experience.
- They pose transportation possibilities for blind and disabled people who might otherwise be mobility-challenged. “The company was built on the lifesaving potential of technology, and the concept of accessibility for all,” he said.
- They are experimenting with pricing models for a more widespread self-hailing taxi service, similar to ride-sharing pricing models used by Uber and Lyft.
- There are several ways that cars may be interacted with to address certain scenarios that might arise during a drive – “Riders can provide feedback, and the car can call for ‘human eyes’ in a challenging situation,” he said.
As to how soon the company will move forward in more test markets, Krafcik would not tip Waymo’s hand.
And as to competitors vying for dominance in this technology sector, Krafcik seemed confident in Waymo’s ability to lead the pack: “Our mission is clear: we want to make Waymo the world’s most experienced driver.”