Waymo just dropped it 43-page white paper called the Waymo Safety Report that provides a wealth of new information about Waymo’s vision for the self-driving car market that the company is preparing to launch.
Officially, the document is a regulatory filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has encouraged—but not yet required—those who manufacture personal vehicles to file a report describing how they expect to deal with many security issues. But the document is yet another part of the company’s public education campaign to convince Americans of the benefits of its technology.
It’s basically a marketing document rather than a technology, so it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about exactly how Waymo’s technology will work. However, it provided a lot of new information—and apparently confirmed a lot of rumors and educated guesses—about how Waymo views the self-driving car product that Waymo could launch as soon as this year.
Here are five big things I learned from reading the report.
1) Waymo is placing safety at the center of its advertising
The biggest fear with the advent of fully self-driving cars is safety: what happens if a car runs, crashes, and kills passengers or bystanders?
Waymo’s answer is to put safety at the heart of its pitch for driverless cars. “Safety is at the core of Waymo’s mission,” the report said. “It’s why we were founded eight years ago as Google’s self-driving car project.”
The report states that 1.2 million people around the world are killed in car accidents each year, and that 74 percent of those accidents are due to human error. While there are risks inherent to any new technology, Waymo argues that at scale, its technology will be able to save thousands of lives each year.
2) Waymo says its cars can handle driving at night and in light rain, but its cars will be geofenced
We’ve known for some time that Waymo is planning to offer a ride-sharing service rather than selling Waymo cars directly to consumers. This new report confirms that plan and fills in some details on how it will work.
A big advantage of the ride sharing model is that it is not necessary to manage every possible driving scenario before starting to provide service to the public. Waymo plans to limit customers to trips in areas where Waymo has detailed maps.
“Passengers cannot select a journey outside of the approved geography, and our software will not create a route that travels outside of the geo-fenced area, which has been mapped in the information,” Waymo said. The information reported earlier this month that Waymo cars will initially be located in the Chandler, Phoenix area.
Similarly, if the technology is not ready to handle a certain weather condition—say, snow and ice—a company may initially not provide service in those conditions. This is probably a big reason Waymo is choosing to launch in Phoenix first. In Phoenix, people don’t have to worry about snow or ice, and even rain storms are rare. However, Waymo says its vehicles are designed to operate in a wide range of locations.
“We are developing self-driving technology that can navigate city streets in a variety of locations within wide geographic areas,” Waymo wrote. “Our cars are made with the ability to drive in bad weather, such as light to rain, and can work during the day and at night.”
If the weather suddenly turns for the worst, Waymo vehicles are programmed to detect this, find a safe place to stop, and pull over until the weather improves.
3) Waymo is security-critical systems sandboxing and building a lot of redundancy
If your smartphone crashes, you reboot and continue with your day. If the computer on a self-driving car crashes while the car is on the road, the consequences can be fatal.
Waymo says it has done a great job of making sure computer crashes don’t cause car accidents. All of the key systems on your vehicle—the computer, brakes, steering systems, and batteries—have backups ready to take over if the primary system fails.
“A secondary computer in the vehicle is always running in the background and is designed to bring the vehicle to a safe stop if it detects a failure of the primary system,” Waymo said. Waymo also says there are “independent collision avoidance systems” on the cars that scan the road ahead for obstacles and can brake if they detect a pedestrian or other obstacle that the primary computer has missed.
According to Waymo, all of these systems have separate power sources, so a power failure to the primary computer will not knock out the backup computer or other critical systems.
Waymo says it has thought hard about computer security, too.
“Safety-critical aspects of Waymo vehicles—such as steering, braking, steering—are isolated from outside communication,” Waymo wrote. “For example, both the security-critical computing that determines the vehicle’s movements and the 3D maps in the vehicle are protected from, and cannot be accessed by, the vehicle’s wireless connections and systems.”
The obvious question here is how these security-critical systems manage to receive important information from the outside world—like updates about traffic conditions or even a piece of information about where the customer wants to go. I have asked Waymo for more details and will update if they tell me more.
4) Waymo vehicles will feature a “pull over” button and one to call customer service
Waymo says it will have a ride-sharing app that customers can use to hail a car just like they do with Uber or Lyft today.
Controls will also be in the vehicle. The display screen will show “essential travel information such as destination and time of arrival. It also visualizes static road elements such as traffic lights, stop signs, and dynamic agents in the environment such as vehicles, horsemen, and footmen.”
The goal here is not to inform customers of the long-term progress but also to convince customers about the safety of the technology. Nervous passengers will be able to make sure that the car sees the same pedestrians, stop signs, and other important objects that the passenger sees outside the window.
Since the car will drive itself, there is little need for controls inside the car. But there will be two keys. One will be a “pull over” button the passenger can push whenever they want to get out of the car. When pressed, this button will “indicate the closest position to safely pull over so the rider can exit the vehicle.”
Another button will take passengers to the Waymo operations center where they can speak to a human Waymo representative. Employees at the operation center can answer customer questions and intervene if a car encounters problems. Customers will also be able to talk to a Waymo representative through the mobile app.
5) Waymo appears to be preparing for a commercial launch
The biggest lesson from this report is that Waymo has thought through many details about how to turn this promising technology into a fully commercialized product.
Waymo says it has subjected its cars to a variety of extreme conditions to test their capabilities. “We bombard our materials with ultraviolet radiation, bombard them with powerful jets of water, put them in vats of nearly freezing water, put them in chambers filled with salt fog, vibrate and shock them with strong shocks, and heat and freeze them for weeks. time in temperature and humidity chambers,” Waymo wrote. “We analyze any failures and make design improvements to increase the reliability of our components.”
Waymo has developed procedures for dealing with crashes and has begun training law enforcement officers in Chandler and elsewhere about how to interact with its vehicles.
Waymo launched a public education campaign to convince consumers that technology will save lives and empower elderly and disabled customers.
These are the kinds of steps a company takes when a product is months, not years, away from commercial release. The information has been reported that Larry Page, boss of Waymo CEO John Kraffik, is pushing Waymo to launch a commercial product this fall. We don’t know if Waymo will hit that ambitious goal. But it’s clear that Waymo is aiming to bring its product to market soon—likely in 2018, if not this year.