Not long ago, it seemed like science fiction. But today, no fewer than 30 groups have permission to test self-driving cars on America’s highways. And under a new policy change by the federal government, those cars can soon be produced without even the pretense of backup controls for a human: in other words, no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake. On a recent trip to San Francisco, we put the prototype Waymo cars to the test.
Sandy Karp: We started with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to get where they're going.
Waymo’s Sandy Karp is our guide on today’s futuristic driving experience.
Karp: Waymo stands for a new way forward in mobility.
Waymo is a product of Alphabet, which owns Google. During our visit, Waymo was in the middle of its pilot “trusted tester” program, where selected riders can try out the technology for free and give feedback before the service is offered to everyone.
Sharyl: In simple overview terms, how does this technology work?
Karp: So we got lidar, which is on the top of the vehicle, as well as cameras and radar.
Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It’s a remote method used to sense surfaces.
Karp: And this basically informs the vehicle or our autonomous driver of what's happening around it.
Sharyl: What would you say are the benefits for this, as opposed to hiring a car with a driver in it?
Karp: So you know that you're getting into, well today in San Francisco, a white, all electric I-Pace, you know it's going to be clean, you know it's going to be charged, you know that the autonomous driving experience is going to be the same, no matter if you're getting in this vehicle or one that looks like it.
Karp: So I'm pulling out my phone. Like any other ride-hailing application, you just open up the app.
Sharyl: These are Jaguars?
Karp: They're all electric Jaguar I-Paces, so very sleek, very modern, and very quiet because they're all electric. And then because all the vehicles look the same, in addition to the driver's license, you'll also see your initials of the rider on the top of the lidar.
On today’s ride, there’s an actual outdated human in the driver’s seat, though— as long as things are working correctly— he’s got nothing to do.
Karp: He's going to be supervising the vehicle, making sure everything goes smoothly. And then the car is actually going to be driving itself, or actually our autonomous driving technology, the Waymo driver, will be driving the vehicle for us.
In Phoenix, Arizona, the Waymo cars are already operating without a human supervisor riding along, as seen in this video. In San Francisco, that will come next.
(getting in to vehicle)
Sharyl: We can go ahead and climb in.
Karp: Whenever you're ready, if you want to do the honors, and start the ride by hitting the big blue button, we'll be on our way.
Sharyl: Okay, here we go.
Car GPS : Heading to 2741 Folsom Street. Please make sure your seatbelt is fastened. For any questions, press the "call support" button to speak with a rider support agent.
Sharyl: And what technically, in very simple terms, is happening right now as we're driving, so that we can navigate without a driver?
Karp: There's a lot happening. So it knows, okay, there's a vehicle in front of us, something to the left, or identifying all the motions that happen on the roads. So all that information feeds into our machine-learning models. So we have something called perception, which makes sense of that sensor data. We have behavior prediction, which anticipates what other road users are going to do, and all that informs our planner, which plans out what the Waymo Driver, or our autonomous driving technology, will do next. And then throughout the ride, you can provide feedback for how you think the autonomous driver is doing, really basic smiley faces.
Car GPS: Vehicle approaching.
Karp: So, it's letting us know that something's coming from behind, which is critical for when people are getting in and out of the vehicle. But normally I just zone out when I'm in a car. So it's really nice to be able to see the map.
Car GPS: Vehicle approaching.
Karp: And then we are here. (exiting vehicle)
Sharyl: Do you think you have a large hurdle to cross with a lot of people who just don't want to get into a car that doesn't have a driver in the front seat?
Karp: I think that building trust is a huge part of bringing our technology to the market. However, we can't do this without the community's trust and acceptance of it, and I think that with releasing this technology, a lot of it is education, making sure people understand what's happening along the ride and what the rider experience is like. However, we hear it often that when people do go for their first ride, they at first look around and then they quickly relax once they get going.
Sharyl (on-camera): Karp says the cost of a Waymo drive is roughly comparable to an Uber or a Lyft.