Waymo Autonomous Vans to Operate Without Backup Driver

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【Summary】Google's sister company, Waymo, is now operating self-driving minivans without a backup driver.

Mia Bevacqua    Nov 12, 2017 10:15 AM PT
Waymo Autonomous Vans to Operate Without Backup Driver

A vehicle isn't truly autonomous until it ditches the human behind the wheel. Automotive development company, Waymo, plans to have its vehicles do exactly that.

Losing the Human Driver

For years, Waymo has been hard at work developing a fleet of self-driving minivans in the Phoenix, Arizona area. Until now though, the vans have had too many problems to roll solo.

Waymo is owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc. Head of Alphabet, Sergey Brin, has promised a road-worthy autonomous car for the past 5 years. But so far, no dice. Will things be different this time around?

Maybe. Waymo's self-driving Chrysler Pacifica's have proven themselves on a closed track. The vans went driverless around the company's Castle test facility, in Atwater, California. Not surprisingly, journalist from all over turned out for the event. Many were treated to rides in the vans, sans driver. 

Take a Ride in a Waymo Minivan

So, what's it like to ride in a Waymo minivan? Currently, the interior isn't much different than that of a standard Chrysler Pacifica. The only exception is the screens mounted in the front seat backs. To ease passenger anxiety, these displays play a soothing cartoon depicting the vehicle's surroundings. Of course, they also play the obligatory "Buckle Up" message before departure. 

Many people don't trust a vehicle to navigate on its own. For this reason, the screens display messages to explain the van's actions. For example, it tells passengers when the vehicle is stopping for pedestrians, or when it's picking up more riders. 

Speaking of which, so far, passenger pickup and drop off has been one of Waymo's greatest hurdles. In one instance, the van dropped passengers off into patch of cacti, according to IEEE. No doubt those patrons declined to leave their robo taxi driver a tip. 

In case your Waymobile decides to drop you off into a bunch of cacti – or worse – the vehicles are equipped with a ‘Help' button. If a robo-chauffer goes rogue, passengers also have control of the door locks and there's a ‘Pull Over' button. 

Level 4 Autonomy Takes to the Streets

Waymo's VP of engineering says the company's plan is different from that of its competitors. Instead of starting out by introducing Level 3 autonomy, like Tesla has done, Waymo intends to go straight to Level 4. From the start, the company has built its vans with this goal in mind.

As Waymo's CEO John Krafcik puts it, "We've redesigned our vehicle around the needs of the rider, not the driver."

As of earlier this week, Waymo announced it has broken free of the test track. It's now trying vehicles on public roads without a backup driver, according to the New York Times. Currently, testing is limited and restricted to the Phoenix area. So, if you want to be an early adapter, head down to Arizona to catch a ride. 

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