TRANSPORTATION TECH

Google spins off self-driving cars as Waymo, says first fully self-driving ride was in Austin

Posted December 13th, 2016

The Google X self-driving car project, which has made headlines in Austin as one of its major testing sites, is being spun into its own company called Waymo.

The announcement came on Tuesday in an event out of Mountain View, California. The new company will focus on self-driving car technology and will be under Alphabet, the parent company of Google. 

The company also revealed a major Austin milestone: On Oct. 20, 2015: what Waymo is calling the first truly driverless ride on public streets took place in Northeast Austin. Steve Mahan, former CEO of Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, was first to drive on Austin public roads in fully self-driving car. The company declined to name the exact location or route, but said it took place in a ride from a North Austin neighborhood to a park. Mahan, who is legally blind, rode alone in a prototype vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals.

"A very important segment of my life was cut away when my vision failed. A self-driving car would give me a huge part of my life back," Mahan said in a video shown on Tuesday. Mahan lost his vision in 2004.

"It is like riding with a very good driver," he said at the press event. 

Mayor Steve Adler touted Austin's place in transportation history with the Oct. 2015 ride. Adler said, "Austin is the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars. We should all be proud that our creative and innovative city is where such a huge leap forward can take place."

Governor Greg Abbott said of the ride, "Texas is the new frontier in innovation, and we’re proud that the Google self-driving car project, now known as Waymo, chose the Lone Star State for the world’s first truly self-driving ride. This historic moment is evidence that Texas has created a uniquely supportive environment for companies that are advancing new breakthroughs in technology and infrastructure. As governor I will ensure Texas continues to attract innovators like Waymo to find solutions to the challenges of the future.”

Preparation for that ride involved thousands of hours of testing in that neighborhood, hazard analysis and software testing to make sure the vehicle itself was up to the task, a spokesperson said. Waymo's self-driving technology involves cameras, radar and sophisticated mapping that goes much further in detail than what Google Maps does, a data process that is ongoing.

Waymo's mission, said its CEO John Krafcik, will be "to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around."

The company is interested in using its technology, which it began developing six years ago, for ride-hailing, trucking and logistics, personal-use vehicles and public transportation, especially for those who are unable to drive. 

Austin is one of four testing sites in the U.S., including Mountain View, Washington state, Phoenix, Arizona with a fleet of about 60 vehicles, a mix of bug-style prototypes and Lexus SUVs. Next year, the company plans to introduce Pacifica hybrid minivans as part of a deal with Fiat Chrysler to that fleet.

Krafcik cited the high number of auto fatalities, 1.2 million every year worldwide, was one of the primary reasons to push the technology further. "For some reason we seem to accept that," he said. 

He said that the company has traveled 1 billion miles in simulation since the ride with Mahan and has provided 10,000 trips with Google employees and guests since October, 2015. As to why the company waited more than a year to reveal that it had completed a fully automated ride, Krafcik said the publicity simply wasn't a priority. He promised to share other stories of the technology's progress in the near future.

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