Google today rebranded its self-driving car unit into a separate company called Waymo—which, by the way, bears no connection to a workout of the same name at an athletic club in Arkansas. The fitness Waymo stands for "what are you made of". Waymo, the self-driving car, however, stands for "a new way forward in mobility," according to spokesperson Jacqueline Miller.
The point of Waymo is to be a more efficient, accessible, and safer form of transportation. From a business perspective, separating the self-driving cars out of Google into a new company could either be a good thing or a bad thing for the overall project, depending on whether or not they're able to continue to get funding, and eventually generate enough stand-alone revenue to justify their existence (a recent Bloomberg Businessweek report noted that Google's "moonshot" experimental ideas have come under more fiscal scrutiny lately).
And though Waymo is a "new" company under Alphabet, Google's parent company, it builds on technology already developed over several years at Google.
In late October 2015, Waymo completed the world's first fully-self driven car ride on public roads in the Austin suburbs with Steve Mahan, who's legally blind. During that ride, the car did not have a steering wheel, foot pedal, or test driver as it drove from a doctor's office to a park. As a passenger, Mahan was the first person in the world to ride in a fully self-driving car. That was also the first time Mahan was alone in a car in twelve years.
Waymo's self-driving car takes care of some of the hardest driving tasks, including detecting and moving aside for emergency vehicles, dealing with multi-lane four-way stops, and anticipating spontaneous or unpredictable events on the road. The self-driving car has been developed over 2 million miles of driving in the real world; it's also gone through over a billion miles of simulated testing. And it should look familiar: after all, it's the same cutesy, curvy, VW Beetle-meets-Smart Car-like design that Google unveiled back in 2014.
The self-driving car processes information around its environment and makes decisions based on certain signals. Car uses very detailed 3D, digital maps, which include lane markers and traffic signals, to determine its location, as well as cameras, lasers, and radars that give it 360 degree vision. The car can also recognize other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians since during its real-world development, it learned to recognize how each one might behave. Again, if this all sounds familiar, that's because you've heard it before: Google has been announcing details of its self-driving car program over the past few years.
The car also drives carefully, such as slowing down near a construction zone, waiting 1.5 seconds after a red light turns green to account for stragglers through the intersection, and going closer to the center of the lane to give cyclists more room.
While driving with Mahan was Waymo's first milestone, the new company's next step will be to help people do everyday tasks like running errands, going to work, or getting home safely after a night on the town. The idea is to help people reevaluate the ten trillion miles that cars currently travel around the world each year.
Still unanswered: when can ordinary people like you and I ride in a Waymo? We asked the new company for a response over email, but did not receive it in time for this article's publication.
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