Waymo's Self-Driving Cars: How They Work

Driverless vehicles stir fear and excitement about the future of transportation

Image of Google's Waymo self-driving car
Self-driving cars are displayed at the Google I/O 2018 Conference.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

Waymo, which began as a Google research project, is at the forefront of the self-driving car revolution. The company has real-world testing underway in dozens of cities and has ambitious plans for a driverless, ride-hailing service.

Why Is Waymo Developing Self-Driving Cars, and Who Will Use Them?

Waymo's stated mission is to "make it easy and safe for people and objects to move around." The basic idea is that some people are really good drivers but a lot are not, and a world full of self-driving cars could potentially be much safer than a world full of human drivers.

Waymo's Firefly self-driving car negotiates traffic
Google's adorable Firefly prototype was the predecessor to Waymo Self-Driving cars. Waymo 

Whether or not that's true, self-driving cars from companies like Waymo can be a tremendous asset for elderly or disabled drivers, as well as people who do not have a driver's license.

Driverless technology also shows promise in emergency situations. For example, if a driver becomes ill or incapacitated and cannot drive, a vehicle equipped with self-driving technology could take over and drive them to safety.

The real-world applications for self-driving technology are in moving people and goods from one place to another. Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber, as well as delivery services like UPS, stand to save millions in labor costs.

There are real concerns about the automation of these jobs and what such displacement will have on the job market. Nonetheless, companies like Waymo are charting a path towards a driverless economy with little to no obstruction.

Where Is Waymo Available?

Waymo has testing locations in California, Texas, Washington, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, with the most extensive testing taking place in Arizona. Ultimately, the availability of Waymo hinges on local laws governing self-driving vehicles. That means driverless cars can only operate on public roads in locations where they have received explicit approval.

Some of the friendliest laws for self-driving cars are in Arizona and California. Waymo kicked off its Early Rider program in Chandler, AZ in 2017. Members of the program are able to request a Waymo ride to school, work, the grocery store, or other destinations. California granted similar approval to the company in 2019, allowing Waymo to transport passengers with its fleet of robotaxis.

What Is Waymo, and Where Did It Come From?

Waymo launched in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. In 2016, it was spun off as a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet. Prior to the split, the Self-Driving Car Project was responsible for many of the most important breakthroughs in the world of driverless vehicles.

In 2012, Waymo's predecessor received the first-ever license for a self-driving car, when a heavily modified Toyota Prius was granted permission to drive on Nevada roads. At the time, state law required an emergency backup driver to be behind the wheel at all times, as well as a second person in the passenger seat. The legislation opened the door for real-world testing of Google's self-driving technology.

Between 2012 and 2018, vehicles powered by Google and Waymo's driverless technology racked up over six million miles on public roads. By 2017, Waymo was allowed to deploy its driverless cars on Arizona roads without safety drivers.

Arizona was also the site of Waymo's first semi-public driverless ride-hailing tests. The test was initially centered around the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, AZ. It was only made available to members of Waymo's Early Rider program.

What Is a Waymo Car?

Waymo is intent on building self-driving technology rather than cars themselves. Google's Firefly prototype was an exception to this philosophy. The Firefly was designed exclusively for self-driving technology without a steering wheel, brake or gas pedals, or traditional controls of any kind.

Waymo Jaguar I-Pace self-driving car
Waymo uses cars like the Jaguar I-Pace for its driverless car technology. Waymo

The Firefly prototype revealed what a driverless car could look like in the future. Waymo, however, left the concept behind to pursue a more traditional direction.

Waymo's fleet of self-driving cars consists entirely of production model cars modified with self-driving technology. The two models that Waymo identified for its initial driverless fleet were the Chrysler Pacifica and the Jaguar I-Pace. Waymo worked closely with Chrysler to design a Pacifica minivan that would mesh with driverless technology, and the I-Pace is Jaguar's first all-electric crossover SUV.

The Technology Behind Waymo's Self-Driving Cars

The technology behind Waymo's driverless cars is, on the surface, pretty simple. Each Waymo car includes highly detailed maps of the region in which it is permitted to drive. These maps are accurate down to the inch and include precise locations of roads, stop signs, traffic signals, and other driving cues.

illustration showing waymo self-driving car technology
Waymo's self-driving car technology uses LIDAR to create a map of the area around the car, including obstructions like other vehicles. Waymo

Since real-world conditions can't be predicted by even the most precise maps, each Waymo car is equipped with a LIDAR system. LIDAR is a technology that uses lasers to generate a highly accurate spacial representations. Unlike a human driver, LIDAR is able to generate a 360-degree view around a vehicle. Waymo cars can plot a course from one location to another and then react, in real-time, to the flow of traffic. Map data, LIDAR, and other sensors help keep the vehicle on a safe course.

Self-driving cars rely on a lot of the same drive-by-wire technologies you can find in newer cars. For example, a self-driving car uses LIDAR to generate a picture of its surroundings, but it relies on familiar brake-by-wire technology to slow down, electronic throttle control to accelerate, and steer-by-wire technology to turn. All of these systems are controlled by onboard computers.

The technology in Waymo cars allows for totally autonomous operation. However, most local laws still require driverless cars to have human operators present. In these regions, the safety driver has to sit behind the wheel and switch it into manual mode when the situation requires. Such a situation is called disengagement, and Waymo claims to have a relatively low rate.