Inside Waymo's autonomous vehicles: Here's what it's like to ride in a car with no driver behind the wheel

David Louie Image
ByDavid Louie KGO logo
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Ever ridden in a car with no driver? Here's what it's like
Waymo, based in Mountain View, gave ABC7 News an inside look at what it's like riding in a car with no human at the steering wheel as they continue improving the safety of their autonomous vehicles.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Maybe you've seen them on the road, the autonomous vehicles with their sensors mounted on top and on the side, with a hands-free driver. But have you ever experienced riding in one?

Waymo, based in Mountain View, gave ABC7 News an inside look at what it's like riding in a car with no human at the steering wheel.

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They gave us a live ride on public roads in the Phoenix area, where they've been doing trials since 2018.

On the left is the live camera feed, recorded at midday. On the right, a user interface or display for the passenger with a graphic looks at other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists that the sensors and cameras are picking up.

The motivation to develop this technology is to address this reality. Each year, there are 50 million vehicle injuries and over 1.3 million deaths worldwide. 94 percent of crashes are due to driving error or other human factors, such as distracted driving or drowsiness.

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Waymo is expanding its San Francisco trial to allow its employee volunteers to ride in the back seat.

San Francisco poses unique challenges compared to Phoenix.

"With hills, you have to think about up and down a little bit more to make sure that you can see high enough to see the person coming down the hill, and so we've designed our system to account for those types of things," said Chris Ludwick, Waymo product manager.

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Supplemented by off-road and simulated testing, Waymo has done 40,000 tests to fine tune the detection of pedestrians.

A review of Waymo accidents filed with DMV indicates minor incidents, such as low speed rear-end collisions, over the past two years - One involving a bicyclist with no injury.

Waymo says they're also focusing on what they call turbo-peds, or, people on scooters.

"They move very quickly like cyclists, so we're adapting our perception system to count for things like that to basically be able to predict that people will move quickly and can emerge from a group of pedestrians," explained Ludwick.

Development and testing continues.