January 13, 2017
Ever wanted to take a ride in a self-driving car? Well, you might have the chance soon enough. Google’s self-driving car, now under the name Waymo, has been setting up shop in Arizona and has just launched another test-drive in Chandler.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a test drive in one of the revolutionary self-driving cars from Google. I was treated to a 15-minute ride up and down the neighborhood. The Waymo car took on slow streets, fast streets, open streets, and even busy streets, and it did so without anyone flinching.
The Safety Concern
The only question I was asking while I clipped my seatbelt was: Is this even safe? According to one of the leading engineers behind the project, it’s actually safer to stay off the wheel then on it.
“A self-driving car is not drunk, it is not distracted,” said Jaime Waydo, lead systems engineer. “We have sensors on top of the vehicle that can see 360 degrees around it and can see up to two football fields away. You and I can see about 120 degrees field of view.”
During the drive, I sat behind a Waymo engineer with a laptop showing a visual layout of the area around where we were driving. It looked like the Google Maps of the future. As the car was driving, I could see all of the moving parts firsthand. The car’s sensors were constantly monitoring passing cars, pedestrians and even speed bumps, which showed up on the laptop.
Waymo engineers and experts map out the location of the drive beforehand in order to create a comprehensive view of the car’s route. This allows the Waymo car to understand speed zones, stop signs, and various other elements that go into navigating the roads. This is where I saw the beauty of the self-driving car. Yes, locations need to be plotted before a driving session takes place, but other than that, the car completely takes the reigns.
A Bump in the Road
Consider the car driving in front of you. What if the driver screeches to a halt, unbeknown to everyone else on the road?
That’s what happened on my ride. The car in front of us decided to jolt its brakes in the middle of the road as we were driving. Lo and behold, the Waymo car smoothly braked to a stop and waited a couple seconds to assess the situation. If that had been me in front of the wheel, I can assure you things would have gone much differently.
As the car made a right turn into a busy intersection, I could see oncoming cars on the visual layout that I couldn’t see with my own eyes. The Waymo car was predicting traffic scenarios and adapting to them before I could even register they existed.
Waydo says there’s another reason why the Waymo car is so adaptive.
“We have 2.5 million miles of driving experience, which is the equivalent of having driven for 300 years. No one in the world has that other than us,” said Waydo. “We take all of that knowledge and we learn how to continue to make driving safer and safer.”
Waydo informed me that the experts that facilitate these test-drives only have to manually intervene once every 5,000 miles, and that margin is only increasing.
An Everyday Drive
In a strange way, one of the greatest successes of the self-driving car is its ability to seam flawlessly into the feel of an everyday drive: No abrupt stops, no violent turns, nothing. If I had kept my eyes close, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between my road-conscious mother taking the wheel or Waymo doing it for her.
The success of a self-driving car like Waymo will not only coax the dangerous and irresponsible element out of the driver seat, it will offer a new and original option for seniors or the disabled to have a safe and reliable mode of transportation. For Waydo, the self-driving car is a big deal.
“I think this is the man on the moon moment for the 21st century and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
For me, I was just excited to witness it.
Photo: Waymo via Twitter
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