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Google’s Waymo is Testing Self-Driving Minivans

POR: Alex Perrone


Waymo, the name given to Google’s self-driving car project officially became its own company in December 2016. And now they have begun testing their Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans outside of the mild environment of Silicon Valley and putting it in more challenging conditions.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik has not been shy about sharing pictures of the self-driving minivans in the snow in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

When it comes to self driving vehicles, snow, slush, and freezing rain are more than a fair challenge for self-driving vehicles. The combination of wintry weather conditions not only can obscure roads and lane markings, they tend to muck up sensors used by these vehicles to “see.”

Back in 2012, when the company now known as Waymo was a “project” under Google’s moonshot factory X. They were performing similar tests on public roads in Tahoe with its modified Lexus vehicles. So…this is not a first.

However, it was not until last year, when Ford showed off its winter testing, which was conducted in Michigan that pushed Waymo into the public eye. Both theirs and Ford’s self-driving test vehicles use LiDAR technology. LiDAR is a light detection and ranging radar that emits short pulses of laser light to allow the vehicle to create a high-definition 3D image of what’s around it in real-time. In other words, LiDAR senses nearby objects and uses cues to determine the best driving path.

The current incarnation of the rooftop Lidar uses lasers in order to give the car a unique three-dimensional picture of the world. A few years ago this tech would cost a whopping $75,000 to equip in a single car. Now Waymo has brought that cost down by 90% through developing their own Lidar that can see a football helmet two football fields away.

The details are scarce about how Waymo brought costs down. Either way these recent announcements and developments could spell concern for LiDAR suppliers such as Velodyne. These companies only specialize in making Lidar systems, and they are used by Ford Motor Co. and others. Another company would be Delphi Corp., which is developing its own autonomous driving system.

Auto companies, however, can breathe easy and know that Waymo doesn’t plan to build its own cars, but provide self-driving systems to established carmakers and car-sharing services and others. In addition to their partnership with FCA, Honda Motor Co. recently announced that it’s in talks with Waymo about using its technology in Honda vehicles.

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