The self-driving car industry is in the final miles of a grueling marathon to bring autonomous technology to market. Uber needs autonomous tech to offer ride-hailing services sans human drivers. GM bought Cruise and put autonomous Chevy Bolts on the roads of San Francisco in an effort to remain relevant when people stop buying private cars. If Tesla can cross the line first, it could disrupt the other guys and even offer its own ride-sharing service.
And ahead of them all is Waymo. After nearly a decade of R&D, the company that started life as Google’s self-driving car project has shifted its focus from tech to operations—from development to deployment. The Alphabet subsidiary says it will launch its first commercial, driverless service later this year, in Arizona. It already has the permit. All of which makes it the irritatingly fresh-looking guy, in a dayglow tank-top, taking big bouncing strides at the front of the running pack.
Today, Waymo announced it’s partnering with Jaguar Land Rover to build autonomous versions of the electric I-Pace SUV. “It’s going to be the world’s first premium, electric, fully self-driving car,” says John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo. That sounds like a claim Elon Musk would love to be able to make about Tesla.
Waymo plans to buy 20,000 of the vehicles over the next couple years, do extensive testing and validation, and then fully integration them into its passenger-carrying fleet by 2020. The company says the new cars will be able to offer a million trips per day. It’s a huge expansion for Waymo, which has around 600 vehicles on the roads now, and an existing partnership with Chrysler for “thousands” more minivans.
Waymo is launching its debut service in Arizona, thanks to relaxed legislation and good weather. But Uber’s recent crash in Tempe—one of its cars killed a pedestrian pushing a bike across the street—raises questions about the ethics and wisdom of testing on public roads. Earlier today, Governor Doug Ducey indefinitely barred Uber’s robo-cars from testing in the state.
“We have confidence in our system,” says Krafcik. “We continue to work very closely with regulators, but there should be no question about the care we take, and the redundancy we have.” He cites the five million autonomous miles his firm has driven in 25 cities, plus five billion miles in simulations, when defending the decision to let his vehicles loose on public streets.
This is the sixth vehicle that Waymo has outfitted with sensors, from the Prius, to the most recent Chrysler Pacifica, and it’s getting pretty slick with the styling. The autonomous I-Pace prototype the company unveiled on stage ahead of the New York Auto Show doesn’t ruin the hunky lines of Jaguar’s SUV too much. Waymo and Jaguar have condensed the lidar laser scanners, radar, and cameras, needed to perceive the world around the car, into a streamlined roof box with a black bulge on the top, which looks like the spinning light on a 1970s cop car. The only other giveaways are lumpy sensors over the front wheels, and some less-than-subtle badging.
Jaguar, for its part, gets a large chunk of guaranteed sales and a chance to look like it’s at the forefront of this emerging technology. The company is involved with separate self-driving trials with the UK Autodrive Project, a three year test of connected and autonomous cars.
The British company launched the I-Pace earlier this year. It’s fully electric, with a 95kWh battery, and a range of 240 miles. It can sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds, and makes a compelling alternative to Tesla’s Model X. (Just don’t expect the robot to floor the accelerator.) The range is enough for any average commuter, but for a self-driving vehicle aiming to offer up to 50 rides a day, it may be a limiting factor. The hardware required to enable robo-driving is also power intensive—all the extra sensors and the chips in the supercomputers on board suck down electrons.
On the other hand, Jaguar advertises an 80 percent top-up in 40 minutes. “One thing that attracted us to the I-Pace is the quick recharge time,” says Kafcik. “We can get through the peak duty cycle of a rush hour, and then do a quick top-off charge to get us through the rest of the day.”
Learning how to manage a fleet of electric vehicles, or who to partner with, is another valuable insight Waymo will gain, and it’s one that other players will need to learn if countries like the UK, India, Norway, and China, go through with plans to ban the sales of internal combustion engines. As well as just needing outlets, self-driving cars will have to be capable of hooking up to power with no human help. That could be achieved with wireless charger (just park over a particular spot, like throwing your phone on a charging pad), or more creepy looking concepts like Tesla’s robotic snake cable charger.
As for the passengers, a ride in a Jag might be fun at first. But dramatic as it currently sounds, a ride in a vehicle with no human in control quickly becomes mundane. People in the back get over the novelty of an empty drivers’ seat quickly and resume normal passenger behavior, like looking at their phones, or napping, even as they cruise down the highway to the future.
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