Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, has slashed the cost of a key technology required to bring self-driving cars to the masses and rolled it out Sunday in an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan.
Waymo has cut costs by 90% on LiDAR sensors, which bounce light off objects to create a three-dimensional map of a car’s surroundings. The breakthrough will let Waymo bring the technology to millions of consumers, John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer, said in a speech at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
"When we started back in 2009, a single top-of-the-range LiDAR cost upwards of $75,000," Krafcik said. He didn’t say when Waymo will get its self-driving cars in the hands of consumers, but he predicted the technology would show up "in personal transportation, ride hailing, logistics, and public transport solutions."
The executive also reported a big improvement in the performance of Waymo’s system during testing in California last year.
At an Inflection Point
"We’re at an inflection point where we can begin to realize the potential of this technology," Krafcik said. "We’ve made tremendous progress in our software, and we’re focused on making our hardware reliable and scalable. This has been one of the biggest areas of focus on our team for the past 12 months."
Tesla Motors Inc., BMW, Ford Motor Co. and Volvo Cars have all promised to have fully autonomous cars on the road within five years.
"What truly excites us is the potential this technology has to create many new uses, products and services the world has yet to imagine," Krafcik said. "We’re thinking bigger than a single use case, a particular vehicle, or a single business model."
Krafick, who has spoken previously about the importance of forming partnerships, did not identify any new alliances with automakers or other companies. Alphabet and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are doubling their self-driving partnership, adding about 100 more Pacifica Hybrid minivans to the test fleet, according to people familiar with the decision.
Previous talks between Google and automakers including Ford have broken down over who will control the flow of data from autonomous cars that marketers covet to learn the habits of consumers, people familiar with the discussion have said.
Waymo's Hardware Chops
To the car industry, Google’s allure has always been its software. But in Detroit, as the company debuts its more ambitious automotive aims, Krafcik, a former Ford and Hyundai Motors executive, touted Waymo’s hardware chops.
The high cost of specialized equipment remains an impediment to making self-driving tech mainstream. Reductions in sensor prices would help in selling driverless cars. That’s a business where Waymo, which launched as a standalone Alphabet business in December, hopes to compete.
Krafcik noted improvements in its suite of hardware had created a "virtuous cycle" with the company’s complicated software that makes the technology more reliable and cost-effective.
"Having our hardware and software development under one roof is incredibly valuable," he said.
The Pacifica he showed Sunday has technology developed exclusively by Waymo over the past seven years. Waymo plans to use the Fiat Chrysler minivans in a ride-hailing service, which the companies expect to launch this year, people familiar with the plans have said.
Last week a Toyota Motor Corp. executive struck a cautious tone on the state of robot car development.
“None of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy,” said Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, referring to the ability of a car to drive itself without any human intervention.
There is still much work to be done to perfect a technology that has potential for great good or harm, said Kevin Tynan, senior auto analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.
“I find it hard to believe that the world will be this utopia of people sitting in the passenger seat, getting aromatherapy and listening to Enya, while self-driving cars figure out which one should proceed through the intersection first," Tynan said in an interview. “The world has to be mapped within millimeters and artificial intelligence has to be able to interpret the way humans really drive.”
Google was a pioneer in autonomous driving tech, but potential competitors -- including Tesla and ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc. -- have more aggressive plans to deploy their systems than Waymo. Krafcik emphasized Waymo’s advantage in artificial intelligence, a field the company thinks will give it a competitive edge.
The Rain Fog and Snow Hurdle
Krafcik also said that Waymo’s autonomous test vehicles will surpass 3 million test miles on public roads by May. Most of the miles, he said, were on "complex city streets." The modified Chrysler minivans will begin testing in California and Arizona next month, he added.
Krafcik noted that Waymo’s new radar system works with its existing sensors to be "highly effective in rain, fog and snow" -- conditions that have so far posed hurdles for autonomous cars. He did not specify how many miles were driven in these conditions.
He said the latest version of Waymo’s system on the Chrysler minivans includes newly invented forms of LiDAR that can provide highly detailed views in close-range and over long distances.
"The detail we capture is so high that not only can we detect pedestrians all around us, but we can tell which direction they’re facing," Krafcik said. "This is incredibly important, as it helps us more accurately predict where someone will walk next."
By Keith Naughton and Mark Bergen