Self-driving cars now ‘way more’ inevitable with launch of Waymo’s first test fleet

Google's sister company Waymo is getting serious about real-world testing.

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Waymo

Google is taking on Uber, and it’s not through a recent lawsuit.

Starting next month, a fleet of 500 mini-vans -- the Chrysler Pacifica to be precise, outfitted with high-powered sensors -- will start carting people around Phoenix. All you have to do is fill out an application. And, for the past two months, the Google sister company called Waymo (part of parent company Alphabet) has been driving people around already as part of an early rider program.

It’s a bit ironic that they picked Phoenix, the site of the Uber tests that were suspended after a crash. Waymo has sued Uber over the theft of their self-driving car schematics, which all started with one errant email. That case is heating up already, now that Waymo claims Uber purposefully hid the sensors that can look for obstructions and other cars on the road this week.

The video for the new Phoenix test is interesting for a few reasons.

There’s a family with smaller kids involved, some of whom say they can now get a ride to school or over to a friend’s house without having to bug their parents. It’s a little odd to think people would use an automated, self-driving taxi for this -- it’s not something I’d want to do. Yet, it’s about the same as using a real taxi or an Uber, since there’s still a human operator.

At one point, one of the kids mentions that there could be a time when there are no more accidents because cars drives themselves. That’s incredibly unlikely, since most automakers are talking more about reducing accidents these days rather than eliminating them.

What will Waymo learn during the test? It’s obvious there are quite a few logistics to work out, and the real winner in the autonomous car race won’t be the company that has the best sensors. It will likely be the company with the best software--to help drives find the vehicle, arrange a trip, pay for the transaction, and get to their destination quickly and efficiently.

It’s interesting because riding in one of these cars is becoming a bit rote. At CES this year, I rode in several makes and models, and the sensors act like a force-field to keep you away from other cars. You eventually get used to the sensation and even forget the car is operating on its own. Many companies -- including Tesla -- already know how to program the car to drive, but Waymo (with help from Google) could be the Big Data company that solves the real issue related to telematics. You have to be able to understand driving conditions, traffic, routes, mapping...it’s a riddle that’s far more complex than just -- does this car not bump into another car.

On a test track sitting in a self-driving Audi not long ago, I remember a Stanford engineer explaining that the real problem is understanding all of the data inputs -- the steering, the yaw, the speed, the curve in the road, the angle of the wheels. Waymo has access to the telematics data, now they just need to get real people in the cars over several months.

It’s a great first step -- this is now becoming inevitable.

That is, as long as there isn’t another crash that resets the progress back to zero again.

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