No doubt, I’ll be meeting in a church basement some years from now.
“Hi, I’m Neil, and I’m a drive-aholic. Last week I, uh, grabbed the steering wheel of my autonomous vehicle and, ummm, stepped on the gas – just a little…
The crowd will hush.
“Well, maybe more than just a little,” I’d continue more boldly. “I swerved out of that stinkin’ line of traffic and slammed the pedal to the floorboards. Not sure what got into me, but seeing the open road ahead, and those poor chumps slowly dying inside their little cars… It felt awesome!”
More icy silence.
“I mean awesomely irresponsible – and it won’t happen again. It’s been 10 days since my last incident…”
Okay, I’m an unapologetic car geek and have been slow to embrace today’s self-driving wizardry. The thought of replacing flesh-and-blood drivers with sensors and a few lines of code may thrill the folks with tape on their glasses, but not those of us who still enjoy the sensory delights of motoring,
That being said, autonomous driving is no longer a “what if.” It has arrived, and the automakers are taking it seriously.
Many have been offering driver aids like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, automatic braking, lane-keeping assist and self-parking for some time. These have proven their worth and have paved the way for the “Jetson era” stuff we’re now seeing from manufacturers like Tesla, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.
And now Google – which isn’t really a car company, but has such deep roots in digital infrastructure that this would seem a natural fit.
They recently spun off their self-driving car project into a dedicated tech company, whose mission is to “make it safe and easy for people and things to move around.”
Since 2009, Google (now Waymo) has racked up 2 million self-driven miles, largely on city streets. Some of this was accomplished in their own two-seater electric (which could be mistaken for a large toaster) with no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake.
It’s not exactly a head turner, but did prove that a driverless car could move safely around town. The company is now testing in four U.S. cities, and has showcased their efforts in a video that features a legally-blind man riding solo in Austin Texas – from a doctor’s office to a park. It was a world first in traffic, and on public roads.
Indeed, the technology can now handle some complex scenarios. Engineers have “taught” the vehicle to navigate through road construction, recognizing and reacting to pylons and barriers by moving over a safe distance. Same goes for large objects, like parked trucks.
Cyclists can be a challenge for human drivers, but the whizzes at Waymo have found a way to keep cars and bikes playing together nicely. It can detect a rider’s hand signal or a random swerve, and respond appropriately.
At the heart of this alchemy of technologies is a Lidar sensor – a 360-degree detection system that uses pulsed laser, much like radar, to create a rich 3D picture of the world around it. Lidar can sense road work, vehicles, cyclists and more from up to two hundred metres. And in surprising detail.
“We detect pedestrians all around us, and we can tell which direction they’re facing,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik. “This is incredibly important, as it helps us more accurately predict where someone will walk next.”
What about rain, snow, fog and hidden obstructions? Here, conventional radar takes up the slack, filtering out noise and tracking objects normally hidden from view.
Waymo recently unveiled a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica at the North American International Auto Show. The event is typically dominated by new production vehicles and flashy concepts, but on day one, appropriately named “AutoMobili-D,” technology was the star – headlined by a minivan.
One that, like the Google car, no longer needs a driver.
It is one of 100 to begin appearing on public roads in Arizona and California, and is a sign of where the company is heading in terms of working with partners like FCA, Honda and others.
“We’re committed to fully self-driving technology,” said Krafcik. “We’re not seeking to build a better car. Our goal is to build a better driver. A driver that is never tired or distracted. A driver that can see 360 degrees, whether it’s pitch black or under the glaring sun. A driver that doesn’t have any blind spots.”
He added that this technology is about more than just personal transport, with applications in ride hailing, logistics and “last-mile” solutions for public transport. In other words, how to get from the train station or bus stop to your home or office.
“We think there are useful products and services in each of these areas. But what truly excites us is the potential this technology has, to create many new uses, many new products and services the world has yet to imagine.”
Indeed, this technology is a disruptor, and standing in the way – or ignoring it – will net the same success as those video rental companies who pooh-poohed Netflix.
And I’ll admit that as much as I enjoy the “idea” of driving, our inability (or unwillingness) to build new arterial roads has made the reality more pain than pleasure.
Maybe the tech nerds are on to something.
Written By Neil Moore
Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving project, has partnered with FCA to build a driverless Pacifica minivan. Its global unveiling recently took place at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The Waymo self-driving Pacifica looks like any other Pacifica minivan, except for the battery of sensors – in particular the Lidar unit on the roof that uses laser to create a rich, 3D picture of the world around it.
Cutline (Waymo on city streets):
Waymo’s technology enables this Pacifica minivan not only to navigate city streets without a driver, but also to recognize complex situations like road construction and pedestrian traffic.
Cutline (Waymo at NAIAS):
Waymo CEO John Krafcik revealed the driverless Pacifica minivan on January 8 at the North American International Auto Show.