FutureStructure

Waymo Self-Driving Ride-Along Indicates Successful Future

Waymo's self-driving Lexus SUV recently provided a gloriously uneventful drive for an Arizona reporter.

by Mike Butler, East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.) / January 24, 2017

(TNS) -- When I got out of Waymo’s self-driving Lexus SUV after my very first 15-minute drive in the back seat, Lauren Barriere was there to greet me in the parking lot of Arrowhead Meadows Park in Chandler.

We laughed.

On the communications team of the Google Self-Driving Car Project, Lauren came to our office in the summer of 2016, soon after it was announced that the technology giant was expanding testing in Chandler, in addition to California, Washington and Texas.

I bugged her about a “ride along” throughout that meeting and in many subsequent meetings and emails.

Someday.

Someday happened Jan. 12.

It was gloriously boring.

I mean that in the best possible way.

Sometime this May, Waymo’s nearly 60 self-driving cars will log their 3 millionth mile, since 2009, which is equivalent to more than several hundred years of everyday driving experience.

I knew Waymo wasn’t going to let Gov. Doug Ducey and members of the media in a self-driving car that was anything less than ready for prime time. I figured the training wheels had come off a long, long time ago.

Still, I was stunned by how silky smooth and utterly normal the experience was. That was what made it extraordinary to me.

Amanda was my “driver” and Rob was the co-pilot. Rob’s laptop displayed a real-time reality show of what the self-driving car’s 360-degree sensors and cameras see. Software and sensors were in complete control.

Color-coded rectangles pop up on the screen for moving cars, parked cars, speed bumps, traffic signs and signals, pedestrians, bicyclists and the occasional bird having a snack in the middle of the road.

I was in the back seat, but I could have just as easily been in the driver’s seat, frantically taking notes and pictures. Imagine your 45-minute commute, and what you could do with an extra hour and a half each day.

As we began our journey on a mild afternoon in the pleasant Andersen Springs neighborhood, the Lexus slowed down and eased over speed bumps.

It recognizes school children walking or on bikes, and it has learned that they can lurch around and be very unpredictable. The car slows down and gives them a wide berth. The car moves slightly toward the left of a traffic lane to give adult riders in the bike lane a little extra room.

The Waymo car will yield its right-of-way at a stop sign if it senses another car was speeding before it got to the intersection or it aggressively stopped midway through the crosswalk. At a red light, it pauses a second or so after the green to avoid light runners.

We needed to make a right turn from the neighborhood onto Ray Road, a 45 mph cross street. Just like us, the self-driving car nudges forward a bit to get a better view of oncoming traffic, which was blocked by landscaping and backyard concrete-block fences.

Despite the car’s programmed cautiousness, the ride seemed to end too soon. I continued to joke and chat with Lauren afterward.

“Can I take it to Flagstaff this weekend?” I asked.

Now there, I thought, is a road trip that I and a Waymo self-driving car was born for.

Someday.

As Waymo rolls closer and closer to getting self-driving cars ready for the road, it’s using more types of vehicles to test and refine its driving software.

One hundred Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Minivans are joining the fleet in Chandler and Waymo’s other test markets. The self-driving minivans are equipped with an all-new computer and a suite of updated sensors.

The Pacificas have already been put through their paces at various test tracks, including the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Arizona Proving Grounds in Yucca.

Waymo is currently in talks with Honda Motor Co. to provide research vehicles for its four test cities.

©2017 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.