driverless car

In the last few years, fighting against driverless car hype has been a Sisyphean task. Eye-catching predictions and empty promises hogged all the oxygen in the conversation even as the technology stalled and racked up major failures.

Hope was running far ahead of what the software could do. But now, a qualitative change is emerging in the nature of the driverless hype. While companies like Zoox are still putting out puff pieces all about their long-run potential, Waymo appears to be actually getting something concrete done.

Waymo was Google’s driverless car project. It is owned by Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google. Last week some information about Waymo emerged that was materially different – a clue things are finally, and in a limited way, getting real.

A Bloomberg story described a Waymo pilot program with 400 customers in an area of Phoenix, Arizona. They have free access to a fleet of driverless cars and have been using the technology to get around.  The cars operate with a driver in the drivers seat – but only most of the time. Sometimes, apparently, Waymo is confident enough send cars out sans back-up driver – a huge step.

The cars are not the little bubbles Google was working on years ago. Waymo changed tack to give up on car design and focus on software. It now fits its many sensors and interior displays to a generic Chrysler minivan called the Pacifica. It has a deal to buy 62,000 of them.

Lining up the ones and zeroes

Waymo’s self-driving strategy is different to that of Tesla and General Motors. Rather than aiming to provide a car that can do self-driving under some circumstances, it wants one that never needs human intervention. This is a harder challenge, but avoids the “hand-off” that ugly moment where a car decides it can’t cope and throws responsibility back to its occupant, whose level of engagement at the time is unknown.

Waymo differs from other driverless car makers in another way too. It uses detailed three dimensional maps of the roadways it operates on, rather than solely expecting the car to infer the presence of various features through its sensors.

Waymo’s plan is to make the ride-hailing service more widely available in Phoenix Arizona at a price likely to be similar to the price of an Uber. For now, Waymo is recruiting more residents of Phoenix to join its “early rider” program in the city, and partnering with the city’s public transport provider to get its employees to and from work.

Beyond AZ

Going driverless seems to works well in this ten by ten mile space in Phoenix, Arizona, a place known for its clear weather, wide roads, shortage of pedestrians, and friendly laws. In 2015, to attract driverless car testing companies, Arizona changed the law so the word “driver” refers to either a human or a computer.

This physical and regulatory utopia is far from being proof driverless cars are ready for primetime all over the world.  In Australia, Waymo would need to contend not only with left-side driving and trams but also kangaroos, whose movement is apparently quite perplexing for systems designed to extrapolate the trajectories of less bouncy animals.

Risks abound all over the world, because computers are imperfect and humans use roads in ways which driverless cars may misunderstand – with horrible consequences. A driverless car owned by Uber hit and killed a pedestrian wheeling a bicycle across a road in March this year.

For now Waymo’s appears to be on the right track, but that could turn on a single incident. Even if Waymo can get its product working smoothly, it will surely not be the final word in driverless car technology. This iteration of driverless cars will probably be to the final product as the Palm Pilot was to the iPhone.

Our preparations

Whether the driverless future is truly upon us or not, Australia is getting ready. A detailed report emerged just last week from Infrastructure Victoria. It visited the Waymo program in Arizona and reports on it like this:

The general community reaction to automated vehicles in Chandler [Arizona] has also been a bit of an anti-climax – they are seen as ‘boring’ drivers, with one person we met with telling us it’s “like driving behind my Grandma.

The report considers a range of scenarios, including one in which driverless fleets like Waymo’s take over. It models a 5 kilometre trip as costing $4.50, or even less under a subscription model. In this scenario the number of vehicles in Victoria falls from 3.5 million now to 260,000 in 2046. But those cars would be working very hard – operating over eight hours a day.

Traffic capacity of the roads would be increase by 75% as the automated vehicles operate more efficiently. Traffic is therefore forecast to be lower, with 82% less delays in peak hour.  It doesn’t entirely go away though: “the number of automated vehicles ‘empty running’ from one trip to the next keeps traffic volumes high – especially in the inner city.”

So keep a close eye on Pheonix Arizona, because in this case, the hype might be justified. If Waymo’s program works well, the world could eventually look very different.