Waymo’s self-driving test fleet just passed the 10-million-mile mark on public roads as the Alphabet Inc. unit racks up all the experience it can in the final weeks before launching a revenue-generating robotaxi service in Phoenix.
Created in 2016 to commercialize the Google Self-Driving Car Project’s years of R&D, Waymo has reported more test miles, both on public roads and in computer simulation, than any competitor in the autonomous vehicle space. Its 600-vehicle fleet needed just over a month to log the latest 1 million miles, coming after Waymo hit 9 million on August 30.
“Our progress on public roads is made possible by our deep investment in simulation,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post.
“By the end of the month, we’ll cross 7 billion miles driven in our virtual world (that’s 10 million miles every single day). In simulation, we can recreate any encounter we have on the road and make situations even more challenging through ‘fuzzing.’ We can test new skills, refine existing ones, and practice extremely rare encounters, constantly challenging, verifying, and validating our software,” he said. “We can learn exponentially through this combination of driving on public roads and simulation.”
From Google to Waymo, the company has spent billions of dollars and almost 10 years trying to master self-driving cars. It has grown from a small team of computer scientists that started the work in 2009 to hundreds of employees working at Alphabet’s Google X facility in Mountain View, California, and facilities around the U.S. It’s tested multiple generations of its robotic vehicles in 25 cities.
Waymo started pulling human safety drivers out of some of its Phoenix-area vehicles last year and has been giving free rides to 400 local test users since 2017.
It launches its commercial service late this year in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb, with hundreds of Chrysler Pacifica minivans that operate with so-called Level-4 autonomous capability, meaning they can handle most but not all normal driving conditions. The vehicles are also geo-fenced, driving autonomously only within tightly designated areas that have been well mapped and familiar to the artificial intelligence at the wheel. Users will summon rides using a Waymo branded app just as they would for Uber or Lyft rides.
Though the scale of the program won’t be huge at the outset, Waymo’s robotaxis mark the start of new transportation era, albeit one that will take years or decades to become widely available. General Motors will jump in in 2019 with its own autonomous ride service developed with its San Francisco-based Cruise unit, followed by Ford, Toyota, Uber and others over the next two years.
While Waymo has the most miles and the industry’s most advanced program a recent report in The Information, a tech news website, highlighted anecdotal problems its minivans have had, mainly citing people familiar with the matter who weren’t identified. The report was a surprise to Chandler police and city officials, who told Forbes last month they hadn’t received complaints from locals about Waymo vans.
The company is adding tens of thousands more vehicles to its fleet, including Jaguar’s recently released i-Pace electric SUV. As it does and services expand, Waymo anticipates racking up vastly more on-road miles.
“Over the next 10 million miles, our journey will take even more riders to even more places, in cars that are safe, in addition to being more capable, comfortable, and convenient,” Krafcik said.