A recent ride in a self-driving van from Google sister company Waymo shows they’re almost ready for prime time

As I stepped into the back seat of Waymo’s self-driving minivan for a ride around the company’s test facility in Atwater, California, it felt like dozens of other times I had ridden in a minivan. That changed once I shut the door and I took off for a short drive where the minivan encountered pedestrians, stalled cars, bicyclists and a variety of staged scenarios.

I experienced how many of us could be making trips when there’s no one behind the wheel.

“We’re excited where we are right now,” said John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, formerly known as the Google self-driving car project and now a separate company within Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“This technology has the potential to be transformative.”

A Waymo self-driving van encounters two stalled cars in a staged scenario in the company's testing ground.

A Waymo self-driving van encounters two stalled cars in a staged scenario in the company’s testing ground.

Not only that, but Krafcik also believes we could see vehicles without drivers on streets and highways sooner than many expected.

“We’re getting close,” he said. “We’re not going to give you a date when it will happen, but stay tuned.”

Krafcik’s optimism comes as automakers like Tesla market features like Autopilot, which allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel for short periods of time. General Motors‘ Super Cruise allows hands-free driving on the highway.

While GM CEO Mary Barra says her company is “quarters, not years” from being to able to remove drivers from the autonomous-drive vehicles it’s developing, no auto or tech firm has yet to roll out a self-driving vehicle that can pick up riders, take them in a trip and drop them off with no one behind the wheel.

Waymo believes that could change in the not too distant future.

Which is one reason the subsidiary of Alphabet brought reporters to see its test facility at the abandoned Castle Air Force Base three hours southeast of San Francisco.

Four markets for Waymo

Krafcik sees Waymo offering self-driving products in four areas:

  • Ride sharing/taxi hailing
  • Trucking/logistics
  • Municipalities ensuring “last mile” transportation.
  • Personal use cars.

Whether the company partners with automakers, ride-sharing firms or other companies remains to be seen. Waymo is already working with Fiat Chrysler, Lyft and Avis.

Waymo is already giving a select number of residents in Chandler, Arizona, rides in self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. As part of that program, the company has modified the vans with sensors, cameras and lunar radar so each Pacifica has a 360-degree view of what’s happening around it.

The minivans also have two other features designed to make passengers feel comfortable riding in a self-driving vehicle.

First, there’s a small panel attached to the center of the ceiling where riders can push one of four buttons to lock/unlock doors, begin a ride, pull over or call Waymo tech support.

Waymo's self-driving vans have a four-button panel for riders to lock/unlock doors, begin a ride, pull over or call Waymo tech support.

Waymo’s self-driving vans have a four-button panel for riders to lock/unlock doors, begin a ride, pull over or call Waymo tech support.

The second is a screen on the back of the front seat showing passengers what the self-driving minivan is seeing on the streets, sidewalks, and so on as it takes them to their destination.

“It’s reassuring to riders to see what’s happening around them,” said Juliet Rothenberg who oversees Waymo’s in-car user experience.

A little odd, but I got used to it

So what did I think going for a ride in a truly self-driving vehicle with nobody behind the wheel?

Yes, it’s a little odd being in the back seat and watching the steering wheel turn on its own.

That said, the screen showing what’s ahead on the street, pedestrians crossing the road or other cars turning in front of us was easy to understand. I would compare it to watching a much more detailed GPS map that shows you where you are headed.

The short ride and seeing Waymo’s technology up close makes it clear the technology is closer than ever to being used by the public. There are still hurdles to overcome with laws and regulations, so it may be a while until a robo-taxi picks you up. Still, Krafcik remains laser-focused.

“Our goal is to bring this technology to the world and public roads,” he said.

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