After 9 million miles traversed across 25 cities, self-driving car company Waymo is working to bring fully autonomous vehicle testing to Silicon Valley streets.
The technology already exists in Arizona, and if the California Department of Motor Vehicles approves Waymo’s permit applications, those eerily empty driver seats and self-rotating steering wheels will attract stares of wonderment locally, too.
The futuristic-sounding proposal brought a standing-room-only crowd to Los Altos Hills Town Hall last week, the second in a series of Waymo community forums the company is hosting in the five towns where it hopes to test driverless vehicles: Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.
“For this next step of our testing, we decided that it would make the most sense to do fully driverless testing in the communities we knew the best and where we could be the most hands-on with things like this, like engagement,” said Ellie Casson, Waymo head of local policy. “This is a big deal, and we wanted to make sure we were being good partners.”
The approximately 120 attendees of the Los Altos Hills forum learned Sept. 5 that Waymo formed in 2009 as the Google self-driving car project. In 2016, the Mountain View-based company became an independent entity under Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Its name is derived from the phrase “a new way forward in mobility.”
In 2012, as Google employees participated in semi-autonomous testing, Waymo’s leadership realized safety hinged on engineering their fleet to operate fully autonomously, said Sydnee Journel, Waymo’s local policy and community manager. She played video footage revealing the Googlers texting, applying make-up and even napping while driving at speeds of 40-65 mph.
“What we found is very concerning,” Journel said. “They were told they had to be ready to take the wheel at any point, and they were not. They were relying too much on the technology.”
A Waymo spokesperson clarified that's what prompted the company to make technology that was fully self-driving and didn't need to rely on a human.
Waymo’s self-driving system employs LiDAR (laser) and radar technology. Cameras provide a 360-degree view that rivals human drivers’ 120-degree view of the world, and the equipment can detect and predict the movement of objects as far away as three football fields, or 300 meters, according to a Waymo safety report.
But how do Waymo vehicles deal with aggressive drivers? a woman asked during the forum’s Q&A session.
“The car can sense that car is getting closer and knows to slow down,” Journel said. “You know, our cars are pretty polite to let the car cut it off.”
And how do Waymo vehicles avoid rear-end collisions?
Casson said Waymo vehicles have not been involved in any major traffic accidents, but conceded most of the minor ones are related to rear-end collisions.
“We’re driving the speed limit, we are doing full stops at stop signs, and that behavior actually is sometimes out of step with regular drivers on the road. … It’s something we’re getting better at as we smooth out our driving style and also something that I think is going to be part of the interesting transition as we have both human and automated drivers on the road,” she said.
Audience members likely had recent news headlines in mind. In May, a Honda sedan in Chandler, Ariz., ran a red light and crashed into a Waymo vehicle, causing minor injuries to the driver manually operating the vehicle. In March, a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., was struck and killed by an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode with a human at the wheel.
After the Los Altos Hills presentation, forum attendees were invited to peek inside one of Waymo’s dome-topped Chrysler Pacifica minivans and don virtual-reality viewers to glimpse what riding inside a driverless car is like.
Los Altos Hills Councilwoman Michelle Wu, who took part in a Waymo demo ride in Mountain View last spring, said she’s enthusiastic about the technology and doesn’t believe it can arrive soon enough to help the Hills’ aging population remain mobile. She wished, however, Waymo representatives’ responses to Q&A session questions were more technical.
“They have to have more sufficient data to prove safety,” Wu said. “They also have to really showcase and answer every safety question in a 100 percent, trustworthy way. They’re going to have to prove that. They can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s safe. It’s safe, safe.’ That’s not enough.”
Marianne Fortmuller, a resident of Buenos Aires visiting friends in Los Altos Hills, saw her first Waymo vehicle soon after arriving at San Francisco International Airport earlier in the week. She said she would feel safe riding in one, but she thought the questions asked by other forum attendees revealed they might not.
“The questions are very interesting, I think, because they capture the fears that the people have,” Fortmuller said. “I think this is the most important part from such a presentation, because I think Waymo is going to listen to the people and listen to their concerns.”
Waymo representatives have scheduled another Waymo community forum 12:30-2:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Grant Park Community Center, 1575 Holt Ave., Los Altos.