Three self-driving Waymo vans have come to Los Angeles to build elaborate 3D maps of the city using ... [+]
Traffic-clogged Los Angeles hasn’t been a factor in the race to perfect self-driving car tech, with R&D and testing concentrated in Silicon Valley, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and even Las Vegas. But that’s finally changing as autonomous minivans from Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo arrive to start building elaborate 3D maps of the sprawling city, a preliminary step ahead of offering on-demand robotaxi rides to Angelinos one day.
Three Waymo vans, loaded with the same laser lidar sensors, radar, digital cameras and computers used for its fleets in Mountain View, California, and Chandler, Arizona, where the company runs a paid ride service, on Monday start rolling around downtown Los Angeles and the city’s heavily trafficked Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard, a neighborhood wedged between Koreatown and Beverly Hills. They’re being driven by Waymo technicians, and there’s no plan to pick up passengers. Instead, the company is eager to study the city’s famed congestion.
“Congestion is a totally different thing and we’re really excited to see how that congestion kind of manifests itself,” David Margines, Waymo’s product manager for mapping, tells Forbes. “Is it similar to San Francisco congestion and the behavior of San Francisco? Or given the way L.A. is kind of built around the vehicle, whether the layout of it has actually allowed drivers to make fewer lane changes, or double-park fewer times or create the types of situations that both human and autonomous vehicles have challenges around.”
Waymo's mapping system creates images that combine laser lidar, camera and radar data, focused on ... [+]
The expansion to Los Angeles comes as Waymo prepares its robotic fleet to handle increasingly diverse road conditions, from hectic, slow-moving San Francisco, leafy Silicon Valley, higher-speed Phoenix suburbs, snowy Michigan, rainy suburban Seattle and Miami during hurricane season. For now, metro Phoenix is the only place the Mountain View, California, company generates ride revenue from vehicles operating in autonomous mode, though most still have a human at the wheel ready to take over if circumstances require (in multiple rides by Forbes, including one with no human safety driver, the vans successfully completed trips in Chandler, Arizona, with no human assistance).Like its plans to expand to other cities, the company isn’t saying when its “Waymo One” service will transition to 100% automated rides, without human backup in the vehicle. Even when it does, the company also remotely monitors the rides with technicians standing by to provide additional route planning in a pinch.
Google has created comprehensive maps of the U.S. and much of the world for years, but those don’t work for Waymo, even as a template. Robotic vehicles needs to know road details and topography, including the height of curbs, the location of potholes and physical damage, lengths of crosswalks, the placement of traffic signals and signage as well as when and how lanes merge or change.
“These aren’t normal maps in the way most people think of them,” Margines said. The things that our cars care about are different than someone trying to find a restaurant using Google Maps or Waze.”
Maps created by self-driving Waymos are more concerned with lane features, intersections and traffic ... [+]
Waymo has permits to test self-driving vehicles on public roads throughout California, even with no human safety driver at the wheel. It’s the only company to get that permission from the state so far. And while it doesn’t need any specific permission to map Los Angeles, it’s coordinating its program with the city.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to learn about how and whether the performance of autonomous vehicles can be improved by being connected to city infrastructure,” Seleta Reynolds, urban transit expert and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, says.
“The way that we’re going to be able to do that is with companies that do their deployment in an intentional way, with the full visibility and awareness with the city,” she says. “That's what Waymo is doing.”