After many years and millions of miles of testing, Google has launched a dedicated company for its self-driving car efforts.
The company, called Waymo, will act like a venture-backed startup, but it's actually a standalone organisation within Google's parent company, Alphabet. Headed by long-time automotive executive John Krafcik, it has the goal of making self-driving cars available for all, among other things.
Here's everything you need to know about Waymo, including when you can expect the first cars to go on sale.
What is Waymo?
According to Alphabet, Waymo stands for a "new way forward in mobility".
It is a new self-driving technology company building on software and sensor technology originally developed in Google’s secret labs since 2009. Waymo is currently refining that technology through billion of miles of simulated tests each year, as well as millions of million miles of self-driving tests on public roads across four US cities.
What is Waymo developing?
Waymo is developing fully self-driving technology.
With this type of technology, a car will do all the work for the driver, so that he or she is never expected to take control of the vehicle at any time. Waymo will presumably turn Google's existing self-driving technology into a practical business that could even turn a profit. It might get into ride-sharing, trucking, and personally-owned cars. Waymo could even license its technology out to car manufacturers, but that's just speculation.
Google has long said that is it interested in tackling self-driving technology in an effort to stem the loss of lives attributed to car accidents. Over 1.2 million people die on roadways, and in the US alone, traffic collisions kill over 35,000 people a year. Ninety-four percent of those crashes involve human error or choice, but self-driving tech could make transportation easy and safe for all.
Does Waymo have any self-driving cars?
Remember, Waymo is building on top of what Google has already done, so its testing fleet includes modified Lexus SUVs and custom-built prototypes. On 19 December, it added modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans to its fleet. The car features a custom computer, sensors, and telematics previously tested in Google's Lexus SUV and other cars. Waymo's engineering team worked with Fiat Chrysler at a facility in Michigan.
Is Waymo testing self-driving cars?
With the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, Waymo has has already completed "over 200 hours of extreme-weather testing" in California and at FCA's "proving grounds" in Arizona and Michigan. But the company's cars are currently out on the streets in California, Texas, Washington, and Arizona with test drivers on board. If you consider all those test hours, Waymo's cars have the equivalent of over 300 years of human driving experience.
In October 2015, Waymo completed the world’s first fully self-driving ride on public roads. You can watch a video of that test above.
How does Waymo's self-driving tech work?
Waymo's self-driving technology uses a combination of sensors and software.
A self-driving car's sensors can detect and observe if a cyclist has extended their arm and signaled, for instance, while its software predicts that the cyclist will move to the side of the lane and plans for the vehicle to slow down and make room for the cyclist to pass comfortably ahead. Waymo's cars relies on million miles of real-world testing in order to know how to navigate safely and comfortably through everyday traffic.
What's next for Waymo?
Waymo's next step will be to let people trial fully self-driving cars. It's looking forward to having new vehicles on public roads in 2017. Krafcik wrote on Medium that road tests will help Waymo to learn how "people of all ages, shapes, and group sizes" experience self-driving technology.