Waymo Now Testing Autonomous Vehicles Without Human Safety Drivers
Shortly after self-driving car company Waymo was spun off from Google, it announced a new generation of autonomous vehicles that were rolling out in real-world tests in select areas. Now, Waymo is taking the next step toward a truly driverless vehicle by actually making them driverless. The company is conducting a limited test of its self-driving cars in Chandler, Arizona without a safety driver.
Waymo started as a project in Google’s secretive X division around eight years ago. In every public road test since then, the Google/Waymo cars have been under the supervision of a human driver who sat in the front seat. The idea was they could take control if the car was about to do something wrong and cause an accident. However, Google says that rarely happened. In fact, the only accidents with Google’s self-driving cars occurred when the human was driving.
Even with years of successful tests behind it, there’s understandable hesitance to begin testing cars without drivers. Still, Waymo is forging ahead in Chandler where the cars are going it alone on the open road. Technically, most of these tests will still have a Waymo employee on board to monitor the car’s systems. However, they’ll be in the back seat where they cannot easily intervene in the event of an error. The cars can’t just drive off into the sunset, though. Waymo has locked to cars to a geofence covering about 100 square miles of Chandler (a Phoenix suburb) and the surrounding area.
Waymo’s cars use radar, lasers, and regular cameras to spot objects up to 300 feet away. They can see much better than a human, but making sense of the world is tough for a computer. Waymo seems to be confident with this truly driver-free test. The local government in Chandler seems happy to let Waymo conduct its tests, and Arizona does not have many laws governing the use of driverless vehicles. Companies aren’t even required to disclose accidents, but it’s safe to say Chandler wouldn’t be so welcoming if Waymo’s cars started running into things.
Waymo previously started an Early Rider program to give Chandler residents a chance to get around the city by calling for an autonomous vehicle. They’ll be the first to ride around in the cars sans driver. Maybe Waymo will feel eventually confident enough to roll this out as a real service, but we’re probably still at least a few years away from that.