Business & Tech

Waymo’s autonomous cars cut out human drivers in road tests

Waymo said its driverless cars hit public roads last month but didn’t say if they were tested in environments considered challenging for autonomous vehicles, like bridges or tunnels.
Caitlin O’Hara/New York Times/file 2017
Waymo said its driverless cars hit public roads last month but didn’t say if they were tested in environments considered challenging for autonomous vehicles, like bridges or tunnels.

SAN FRANCISCO — The self-driving car is edging closer to becoming driverless.

Waymo, the autonomous car company from Google’s parent company Alphabet, has started testing a fleet of self-driving vehicles without any backup drivers on public roads, its chief executive said Tuesday. The tests, which will include passengers within the next few months, mark an important milestone that brings autonomous vehicle technology closer to operating without any human intervention.

Dozens of companies are testing self-driving technology on public roads across the United States and some autonomous features are available in today’s cars. But Waymo is believed to be the first company to test vehicles on public roads without a driver ready to take over in an emergency.

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“Our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the US and around the world,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief, said in prepared remarks at a technology conference in Portugal on Tuesday. “Fully self-driving cars are here.”

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The tests are a show of engineering prowess by Waymo at a time when traditional automakers and other tech companies like Uber race to develop similar vehicles.

Waymo is limiting the trials to a region around Phoenix, where it has been conducting a ride-testing program this year, and plans to expand the testing area over time.

Waymo said its driverless cars hit public roads last month. The company did not say whether it was testing the driverless cars in environments considered challenging for autonomous vehicles, like bridges or tunnels, or more difficult conditions, like driving at night or in rain and snow — usually not a big concern in the dry Phoenix climate.

While the prospect of cars without emergency drivers may raise concerns among some passengers, Waymo said it had confidence in the safety of its self-driving technology. It has included backup systems like a secondary computer to take over if the main computer fails. And though the cars are driverless, they are not entirely without humans, at least for now. Waymo employees sit in the back seat of the cars, monitoring them, a company spokesman, Johnny Luu, said.

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Once passengers join the tests, they will be able to contact Waymo support staff with a button inside the car. If the cars are involved in a crash, they are programmed to respond appropriately, including pulling off the road on their own.

Driverless cars are regulated by a patchwork of state laws. Arizona, like many states, has no restrictions against operating an autonomous vehicle without a person in the driver’s seat. On the other hand, California, where Waymo is headquartered, requires any self-driving car to have a safety driver sitting in the front.

Waymo, which started as a research and development project for Google in 2009, has not said much about how it plans to make money despite maintaining what many in the industry consider a technological advantage over its competitors. Waymo said its autonomous vehicles have driven more than 3.4 million miles on actual roads — with safety drivers — as well as running 10 million miles every day in a virtual simulator.

In his remarks, Krafcik said Waymo sees a ride-hailing taxi service as the first application of Waymo’s driverless car technology, though there could be other uses in logistics and public transportation.

Taking the human out of the equation will fundamentally change transportation and change how people buy cars, said Krafcik, who was an executive at Hyundai Motors before joining Google.

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“Because you’re accessing vehicles rather than owning, in the future, you could choose from an entire fleet of vehicle options that are tailored to each trip you want to make,” he said. “They can be designed for specific purposes or tasks.”