After replacing John Krafcik who was the CEO of Waymo, the new co-CEO’s CEOs Dmitri Dolgov and Tekedra Mawakana spoke to Bloomberg about their autonomous efforts.
During the discussion, Dolgov was commenting on Waymo’s autonomous service in Phoenix, AZ when he spoke about the service being able to take you anywhere, around the 1 minute 30s mark in the video.
Well Emily, as you mentioned, we have deployed a fully autonomous ride hailing service, in Phoenix and that’s how people can experience our technology today. You can just download an app, call a car, it shows up with no human behind the wheel, takes you anywhere.
The problem with that statement is that last sentence, where he mentions the car will take you anywhere. That is simply not accurate. Waymo One rides in Phoenix are restricted to specific locations and we can pull from the detail on their own website which currently lists the following:
Our Waymo One fully autonomous ride-hailing service operates within parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. Our service operates around the clock, seven days a week. Riders can travel anywhere in our territory day and night.
So to say a rider can use the service to ‘take you anywhere’ is simply not true and overstates the capabilities of the system.
One of the biggest debates in the the autonomy space is around the use of HD Maps, On Waymo vehicles, typicaly a Chrysler Pacifica or Jaguar I-Pace, you’ll see a series of LiDAR sensors mounted on the vehicle. These scan the environment around the car and by comparing what the LiDAR returns, to a pre-scanned map of the environment, the car can understand it’s available driving space and using path planning algorithms can negotiate around objects in the space (i.e cars, people etc). By also using of computer vision, powered by cameras on the vehicle, Waymo One vehicles can also understand speed signs, traffic lights etc to enable them to navigate city streets.
What Waymo have assembled as a technology stack is impressive, in terms of its ability to operate in localised areas and to be one of the first in the world to offer rides without a human driver is a big milestone. That said, it is important to be technically correct when speaking about the capabilities of their service, as to not mislead customers and investors.
This technicality is particularly important when competitors like Tesla are using a very different technology stack, that relies on computer vision to determine derivable space, trajectory predictions and more and does not rely on fragile HD Maps that need to be updated which roads inevitably change.
With this dependency removed, cars have the potential to drive autonomously virtually anywhere, even unmarked roads as we’ve seen in videos from FSD Beta users. Achieving autonomous driving using this technique does rely on improvements in software, rather than scaling out the areas of the world that have HD Maps.
Waymo are already testing their service in cities like San Francisco and New York, with plans to offer Waymo One there by the end of 2021. As someone in Australia, it’s hard to see Waymo being offered here for many years, so its relevance to people outside the US is almost non-existent, while Telsa’s approach could by a software update away for millions of customers across the globe.
Interviewer Emily Chang enquired when she’d be able to buy a self-driving Waymo for herself. Dolgov responded by detailing plans to expand the use of their autonomous technology in the commercial space (Waymo Via), and then eventually get to personal car ownership at some point in the future. From that response, I think anyone with imagining they were going to buy a Waymo-powered autonomous vehicle, you’ll have to look elsewhere for many years to come.
You can watch the full 14 minute interview on Bloomberg TV.