It has been more than a decade in the making, but Waymo’s self-driving taxis are officially picking up passengers without a human operator at the wheel.
A group of early rider program members in Phoenix, Arizona received a message on this week offering them a free ride with the fully driverless service.
Once the passenger is seated and the ride is underway, the car dials Waymo support to address any questions or concerns about the driverless ride – as many riders have never been carted around by a robot.
Congrats! This car is all yours, with no one up front,’ the pop-up notification from the Waymo app reads. ‘This ride will be different. With no one else in the car, Waymo will do all the driving. Enjoy this free ride on us!.
The news of the program, first reported by TechCrunch, comes less than a month after the former Google project sent out an email to this group letting them know that self-driving taxis were on their way.
Today’s news puts Waymo in the lead of the self-driving car race – beating out top contenders like Uber and Tesla.
Although the program is taking customers, the cars are limited to a geofenced area, but is capable of taking select customers to their destination.
There is a ‘What to expect’ button in the app, which gives more background to riders about their driverless journey.
And Waymo has also shared that support is always available if customers need help – they just simply press the car’s help button or the help feature in the app.
Ten-year-old Waymo is widely viewed as the leader of the self-driving race, but attaining the holy grail of full and safe automation remains challenging as companies in the field seek to recoup their research and development costs.
Google began development of this technology is 2009 in the confines of its secretive X lab.
In 2014, the tech giant shared its first prototype with the world and in 2016, Waymo was renamed, and made into its own separate division in Alphabet.
Just last month, Waymo CEO John Krafcik, said his company is exploring deploying its self-driving technology in the trucking industry.
HOW DO SELF-DRIVING CARS ‘SEE’?
Self-driving cars often use a combination of normal two-dimensional cameras and depth-sensing ‘LiDAR’ units to recognise the world around them.
However, others make use of visible light cameras that capture imagery of the roads and streets.
They are trained with a wealth of information and vast databases of hundreds of thousands of clips which are processed using artificial intelligence to accurately identify people, signs and hazards.
In LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scanning – which is used by Waymo – one or more lasers send out short pulses, which bounce back when they hit an obstacle.
These sensors constantly scan the surrounding areas looking for information, acting as the ‘eyes’ of the car.
While the units supply depth information, their low resolution makes it hard to detect small, faraway objects without help from a normal camera linked to it in real time.
In November last year Apple revealed details of its driverless car system that uses lasers to detect pedestrians and cyclists from a distance.
The Apple researchers said they were able to get ‘highly encouraging results’ in spotting pedestrians and cyclists with just LiDAR data.
They also wrote they were able to beat other approaches for detecting three-dimensional objects that use only LiDAR.
Other self-driving cars generally rely on a combination of cameras, sensors and lasers.
An example is Volvo’s self driving cars that rely on around 28 cameras, sensors and lasers.
A network of computers process information, which together with GPS, generates a real-time map of moving and stationary objects in the environment.
Twelve ultrasonic sensors around the car are used to identify objects close to the vehicle and support autonomous drive at low speeds.
A wave radar and camera placed on the windscreen reads traffic signs and the road’s curvature and can detect objects on the road such as other road users.
Four radars behind the front and rear bumpers also locate objects.
Two long-range radars on the bumper are used to detect fast-moving vehicles approaching from far behind, which is useful on motorways.
Four cameras – two on the wing mirrors, one on the grille and one on the rear bumper – monitor objects in close proximity to the vehicle and lane markings.
‘Our technology can also make trucking safer and stronger, and fill a pressing need for more drivers in many parts of the world.’
‘We´ve already conducted road tests of the Waymo Driver in Class 8 trucks across the U.S., and we´re working closely with the ecosystem – shippers, truck makers, and Tier One suppliers – to ensure a successful deployment.’