Waymo shows autonomous Chrysler in Detroit, touts new in-house sensors

Google's self-driving car dramatically sharpens its focus and lowers costs with new sensor suite.

After seemingly stalling out in the public eye for a while, Google's self-driving car plans appear to be accelerating.

Strongly.

John Krafcik, CEO of the company's newly created Waymo division, has just shown off the company's autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan at the Detroit Auto Show. In fact, whether Google's autonomous efforts really ever paused in the first place remains an open question, because from the looks of the progress that Krafcik has outlined, things may have remained "all systems go" all along.

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Waymo's fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans hit the road this year.

Waymo

According to Krafcik, Waymo has taken the development of all self-driving-related sensors in-house to ensure seamless integration. The new network of sensors, including camera system, radar and Lidar are not just able to see things more accurately and from further afield, they're also cheaper than they were in the company's previous hardware packages. How much cheaper? For example, Krafcik notes that "Just a few years ago, a single top-of-the-range lidar cost upwards of $75,000. Today, we've brought down that cost by more than 90 percent. That's nine, zero. As we look to scale, we will do even better, with the goal of making this technology accessible to millions of people."

That suggests the Lidar sensor costs around $7,500, which is still much too expensive for any traditional production car to absorb, but it's significant progress that will likely improve at scale. The company's new vision system incorporates no fewer than eight modules with multiple sensors, and a 360-degree forward-facing "super high resolution multi-sensor model," which Krafcik claims can now detect distant construction cones while the vehicle is running at full speed.

Importantly, Waymo says it has made strides in radar development, too, and its new 360-degree system doesn't just track forward-moving vehicles, it can also register rear-approaching ones, too. Radar is seen as a particularly important tool in the fight to make self-driving cars work safely in inclement weather like fog, rain and snow, all of which can wreak havoc on sensors at any speed.

Speaking of speed, the number of autonomous test miles Google's prototypes have racked up is ramping up sharply. Krafcik notes that it took six years to achieve their first million autonomously driven miles, yet it only took 16 months to log the next million, and they are on track to reach three million miles this May, with that third milestone taking just 8 months.

How much are Waymo's self-driving cars improving? The company claims a fourfold improvement in its disengagement figures over the last 12 months, a figure it's been working particularly hard to chip away at. Among its California-based test vehicles, Waymo says its cars are testing at "0.2 disengagements" per thousand miles driven, compared to 0.8 in 2015. Says Krafcik, "Now we believe we're at an inflection point where we can begin to realize the potential of this technology."

Disengagements are particularly important success metric for Waymo, because the company is driving headlong toward full Level 4 autonomy, wherein passengers never need to take control of the vehicle. During his speech, Krafcik took a moment to subtly call out those pursuing part-time cars at Level 3 and below: "An 'almost' self-driving one -- what one might call 'aspirational autonomy -- it simply won't cut it," he said.

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The protuberances all over the Pacifica's bodywork hold Google-developed sensors.

Waymo

Of course, Google reps remain mum on what their ultimate goal for developing all this self-driving technology is anyhow. Whether the company plans to manufacture, sell or rent their own Waymo-branded vehicles, whether they intend to license their technology to legacy automakers or outside firms -- or any combination thereof -- remains an open question. In truth, Google's ambitions in this arena remain one of the biggest mysteries in the entire car industry. But the fact that Waymo has now acknowledged that it is going to the tremendous trouble and expense of developing its own full array of sensors should give pause to analysts and pundits who have been speculating that Google is increasingly only interested in being a software provider for autonomous vehicles.

It may not yet be any clearer as to just what this Silicon Valley juggernaut has up its automotive sleeve, but it appears the world is at least a bit closer to finding out what Google -- and Waymo -- has in store.

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