SXSW 2018: Waymo on self-driving cars and safety

At SXSW last week, optimism abounded for the rise of autonomous vehicles. Tesla’s Elon Musk announced self-driving will encompass all modes of driving by the end of next year, saying it will make it 100-200% safer than a person driving.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik added, “It’s here now. It’s on public roads now” and announced that eventhough we can’t yet buy true self-driving cars where the driver doesn’t have to pay attention, “we are deploying it as a ridesharing service.”

Waymo was founded in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project and is currently a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Krafcik defined Waymo as a technology company working on building the world’s most experienced driver, and installing that driver into cars and trucks to make the roads safer and save lives.

“1.25 million people die every year in car accidents around the world. It’s like 140 people dying in a 737 crash every hour of every day. That’s the total global fatality count.”

Krafcik showed never-before-seen video of passenger reactions to the Waymo Early Rider Program in Phoenix. Passengers appeared relaxed and comfortable as they hopped into the empty vehicle, some yawning and sleeping showing trust in the car to drive itself.

At SXSW 2015, the company debuted the world’s first self-driving car  remote-controlled by 150-200 people in Mountain View. Since then, the company has scaled tremendously, purchasing hundreds of cars from Fiat Chrysler and ordering thousands more. They’ve more than doubled the number of employees, moved the technology out of the cloud and into the vehicle, and is planning a Level 4 rollout of fully autonomous vehicles to warm weather regions, including the Bay Area, soon.

Although, Waymo is currently testing in Michigan, Krafcik cautioned against dating when they will be ready to go to market in cold regions due to the difficulty of navigating snow and ice, but he did agree that by 2028, all weather vehicles will be widely available around the world.

Krafick said the Waymo high brain has driven five million miles autonomously in 25 different cities across the U.S. and 5 billion SIM miles, “We think he could be already the world’s most experienced driver.” When asked how it drives, Krafcik responded, “I don’t think it’s too slow or drives in grandmotherly or grandfatherly fashion. It follows the rules of the road.”

Krafcik provided interesting data on how the self-driving car will transform land use. “Currently the U.S. has many more cars than licensed drivers. Each car has four parking spaces. So you have about 300 million cars at 1.2 billion parking spaces, some cities have 20-30% of total land space dedicated to the automobile. That’s a massive stock of capital and 95% of the time, they’re just sitting there.”

Sex, hacking and the trolley question

Amidst joking around about privacy concerns over sex in self-driving cars were being filmed, Vice reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro asked a variety of more serious questions of whether the car could be hacked and how does the car make moral decisions on who to kill.

Krafcik responded that the Waymo car could not be hacked because everything the car needs is inside the car including 360 sensors from the radar, LIDAR, and camera vision systems, an onboard computer, and local steering and braking systems that are not accessible from an external signal.

He also said that the trolley question of how the car knows who to save is invalid because the car can see 360 in three modalities miles ahead and would come to a complete stop before running into people.

Waymo seeking women engineers 

Krafcik addressed hiring, mentoring and retaining women in tech, particularly in the mobility space.

“I think we have a really good and thriving culture at Waymo, and again as a sister company to Google we have a lot of that same spirit, which is great. That said the level of representation at Waymo as at Google, and at a lot of tech companies in the Valley right now is low. It’s not as good as we’d like to see and we see it, at our company, at Waymo, we’re an interesting combination of software engineers and hardware engineers, and we’re at an extraordinarily low level of representation on the hardware side. It’s very, very hard for us to find women engineers with hardware experience. We need to build out these mission systems and compute systems, and radar and LIDAR. It’s a big pipeline problem I think we need to solve. Honestly, we don’t have the answers right now. It goes all the way back to STEM education efforts that we need. Getting more women, more qualified women in the space, by getting them into these programs at a very early age, junior high school, high school, and into the universities. We feel that pressure already, eventhough we’re a relatively young company.”


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