Waymo Unleashes Autonomous Cars – Now Must Earn Public’s Trust

On November 7th, Waymo reached a new milestone by removing the safety net and testing fully autonomous vehicles on public roads without someone behind the wheel to take over in case of an emergency. Waymo has been testing in the Phoenix, AZ area for some time now, and other companies like Uber, Cruise, and NuTonomy have similar operations. But there has always been an employee in the driver’s seat. November 7th marked a new stage of testing self-driving cars. Along with last Tuesday’s test, which took place in Chandler, AZ, Waymo has recently made an exciting push to prepare the public for the cars that, as they just proved, are closer to full deployment than many people believe.

Largely considered the leader in autonomy, Waymo has driven a collective 3.5 million autonomous miles on public roads across 20 cities (that’s the equivalent of the average American driving for 291 years). They have also completed over 20,000 different scenario tests at their facility in California, and simulate 10 million miles per day. “In short: we’re building our vehicles to be the most experienced driver on the road,” they write in a blog post. Along with a growing crowd of other competitors, Waymo gets closer each day to deploying a fleet of self-driving cars available to summon at your convenience. Regardless of how advanced the tech may be, however, the reality remains that people simply aren’t ready to be driving down the road next to an empty car – perhaps the biggest hurdle facing autonomy is widespread acceptance of them.

Being realistic about autonomy. Waymo knows that in order for mass adoption to take place, the public must first trust autonomous vehicles. Successfully building a vehicle that can operate autonomously is a feat of engineering, but educating the public on its benefits is a different task entirely.

Realizing this fact, Waymo has recently made an impressive effort to prepare the public for what’s coming. They have partnered with organizations like the National Safety Council and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, trained law enforcement departments on how to deal with incidents involving self-driving vehicles, and attempted to be transparent by releasing a comprehensive Safety Report and inviting reporters to a test drive at their facility in Atwater, CA. According to a AAA survey this year, only 20% of Americans would trust an autonomous vehicle to drive itself with them in it. This leaves no doubt that we have a long way to go before this technology becomes mainstream. Waymo, more than any other player in the space, is attacking the problem head on, opening up a dialogue with the public and taking an inclusive approach to educating everyone on the risks and benefits of a new type of mobility.

Partnerships. By engaging the public and partnering with organizations outside of tech and auto, Waymo hopes not only to raise awareness and educate people on self-driving cars, but to demonstrate how they are, in fact, a much safer and smarter mode of transportation. Here are some of the groups that Waymo has teamed up with:

  • The National Safety Council – Focused on areas where the greatest number of preventable injuries or deaths occur, including workplace safety, prescription medicine abuse, teen driving, and cell phone use while driving. 40,000 Americans die on the road each year.
  • Foundation for Senior Living – Believes age shouldn’t slow anyone down. 80% of seniors live in vehicle-dependent suburbs, and there are 45M people in the U.S. over the age of 65.
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving – Intoxicated driving is the number one cause of death on roadways.
  • The Foundation for Blind Children – Focused on empowering the blind with independence. There are 1.3 million legally blind individuals in the U.S., growing to over 2 million by 2050.
  • East Valley Partnership – Concerned with improving quality of business and life in the East Valley region. Americans spend 50 minutes on average commuting to and from work each day

Waymo’s Safety Report. “Fully self-driving vehicles will succeed in their promise and gain public acceptance only if they are safe.” This thesis, stated in the early pages of a recently released Safety Report, resonates throughout the next 43 pages, as Waymo lays everything on the table. The report details safety procedures, how vehicles respond to numerous situations, how the autonomous systems function, and several other elements that must be understood before feeling comfortable riding in a self-driving car. It quickly becomes clear that safety is at the core of Waymo’s pitch. As the first voluntary safety assessment of its kind, much of its contents will likely be mandated by regulatory bodies going forward.

Law Enforcement Training. Yes, there will still be accidents on the road when cars drive themselves. While we believe there will be radically fewer of them, law enforcement must still understand how to respond to an incident involving a driverless car. Waymo has designed their systems to interact with law enforcement and first responders with audio sensors to discern where sirens are coming from, and responses like safely yielding or pulling over to a complete stop. They have also briefed authorities in every city in which they test, and conducted on-site trainings to help police and emergency vehicles identify and access self-driving cars.

Test Drives. On October 31st, Waymo hosted a group of journalists at their usually secret testing compound in Atwater, CA. This act is not unprecedented; however, coupled with Waymo’s other recent actions, it represents a level of transparency unmatched by any of their competitors. The group was given a test drive in a mock town they have created, complete with an array of real-life scenarios like an unexpected cyclist cutting in front of the car, or a man standing beside a broken-down Hyundai. Find a detailed write-up of the test drive here or here.

The idea was to give riders a feel for what it’s like to use Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans as on-demand vehicles. It will function a lot like current ride-hailing platforms – a rider summons a car on a smartphone app, the car locates the rider, and navigates to their destination. Press a friendly, blue “Start Ride” button to embark, and passenger-facing screens show a rider-friendly version of what the car is seeing.

Trust building 101 – with transparency. As a cyclist rides by or a car passes, it appears on the monitor – it even shows trees, parked cars, and buildings in your surroundings. The level of detail that Waymo focuses on in terms of user experience leads one to believe they are months, not years, from deploying their much talked-about fleet. A video from Waymo exhibits how remarkably smooth the process is. Between a groundbreaking and successful test, and a new level of transparency focused on building trust and engaging the public, we believe Waymo has earned its pole position in the race for autonomy. Their next step will likely be the deployment of a small fleet to a limited group of participants in AZ – stay tuned.

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