From Zero to Waymo: The Story of Google’s Driverless Car

In recent years, the driverless car has grown to become an epitome of innovation. 

Loads of research, cash and talent are being channeled into attaining the goal of putting self-driving car technology to commercial use.

All efforts are ultimately driven towards improving mobility – especially on the public roads – and turn driving from an individual skill into a shared service. This goal has actually become a slogan for Waymo, a self-driving vehicle technology company created by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

It’s fascinating to peek into the creation process of such an ambitious attempt, so I decided to dedicate this entire article to detailing it.

Waymo’s Driverless Car – A Fast-Paced Journey

In 2005, at Stanford, there was an ambitious student called Sebastian Thrun working to develop a concept for a driverless car designed for a race.

What he didn’t know was that, attending that race, there were Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They were attending in an ‘undercover’ attempt to scout promising talent for Alphabet’s ambitious projects.

They were able to witness how Thrun’s team won that race, so it was only natural that they were impressed and coopted him in their projects.

From then on, their collaboration resulted in a few landmarks:

  • 2007 – Thrun’s second version of his driverless car. It sported 360 degrees cameras which constituted the start of Google Map’s Street View’s feature.
  • 2009 – challenge accepted. The Google self-driving car project kicked off.
  • 2010 – alongside Yoky Matsuoka and Astro Teller, Sebastian Thrun laid the foundation of Google X – an innovation lab where the Waymo driverless car and other so-called ‘moonshot projects’ (big-impact tech for the future) started being assembled.
  • 2015 – an in-house ‘reference vehicle’ called Firefly hit the testing roads, with no pedals and no steering wheel. Plus, this was also the year Google made possible the first-ever fully driverless ride on public roads.
  • 2016 – the driverless car project turns into a self-driving technology company entitled Waymo.

Getting Ahead in the Driverless Tech Game

In their efforts of making public mobility more efficient, Waymo creators partnered with the likes of Fiat, Chrysler, Lyft or Avis.

The sensors and part of the hardware are developed in-house, in an attempt to push cost-effectiveness and independence from supplier services.

Last April marked the beginning of a ride-hailing service operating within an Arizona suburb. Its purpose is using vehicles which are partly automated, feature a driver behind the wheel and test real occurrences on the road.

The Current State of Affairs

It took Waymo a total of eight years to develop from the pilot project into a fully lucrative driverless vehicle.

Of course, it isn’t just now that Waymo cars are seen on the road – there’s been plenty of time allocated to testing; but November 2017 is a particularly groundbreaking time for Google’s prospects in the driverless vehicles industry.

For the first time, Waymo vehicles will populate the streets without a human behind the driving wheel.

If you’re curious to learn how it feels like to be entirely dependent on the driverless technology as your driver, the Verge reporter Andrew J.Hawkins has just been in this position and can report his experience in the backseat of a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica powered by Waymo technology:

“The Pacifica is programmed by Waymo to operate at low speeds, but it’s moving at a pace that is more than a slow crawl.”

“It’s a smooth, yet totally unremarkable ride.”

“I feel completely safe.”

For an even more accurate impression, here’s a clip depicting a Waymo drive:

What Next?

As with its main competitors, the main goals of Waymo are:

  • Overcoming the challenges its fleet will encounter across open road
  • Expanding the scope of the driverless division towards including automated vans or ride-hail services
  • Developing the necessary tech to foresee hazards on the roads
  • Managing to comply with incoming federal regulations
  • Edging out competition by providing accessibility and ease of use.

What the Alphabet subsidiary has to focus on, however, is hastening all the processes towards making the investment pay off.

While Waymo can compensate on the tech innovation side, it remains to be seen whether the company will manage to make a smooth transition and establish itself as one of the driverless pioneers who fully succeeds at putting driverless cars in commercial use.

Philipp Kandal