Waymo’s self-driving cars hit 10 million miles

Alphabet’s self-driving car company Waymo has spent years testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads. What started as a trickle of miles driven each day has exploded in the past few years.

And now, the company has hit a new milestone as it prepares to launch a commercial ride-hailing service with fleets of self-driving vehicles.

Waymo announced Wednesday that its autonomous vehicles have driven 10 million miles on public roads in the United States. Keep in mind that the company hit 8 million miles in July and had logged just 4 million miles in November 2017. In other words, Waymo’s pace is quickening.

These autonomous vehicle miles were logged in 25 cities, notably in Google’s hometown of Mountain View, California and in the greater Phoenix area, where the company launched an early rider program to shuttle passengers around the city. More than 400 early riders use the Waymo app and ride in their autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

The company’s progress on public roads is made possible by its investment in simulation, Waymo CEO John Krafcik noted in a post on Medium. The company will hit 7 billion miles driven in its virtual world by the end of the month.

“In simulation, we can recreate any encounter we have on the road and make situations even more challenging through ‘fuzzing,’ ” Krafcik wrote. “We can test new skills, refine existing ones, and practice extremely rare encounters, constantly challenging, verifying, and validating our software. We can learn exponentially through this combination of driving on public roads and simulation.”

Of course, it’s not just about racking up miles.

Companies like Cruise and Waymo with large numbers of autonomous vehicles have been challenged to develop self-driving cars that can safely navigate complex urban environments and fit in with the millions of human drivers on the road. It’s not always smooth, and traffic can stack up behind these cautious autonomous vehicles, sometimes requiring the human test driver to take manual control of the car.

“Today, our cars are programmed to be cautious and courteous above all, because that’s the safest thing to do,” Krafcik wrote. “We’re working on striking the balance between this and being assertive as we master maneuvers that are tough for everyone on the road. For example, merging lanes in fast-moving traffic requires a driver to be both assertive enough to complete the maneuver without causing others to brake and smooth enough to feel pleasant to our passengers.”

For now, Waymo vehicles are more circumspect and are designed to take the safest route, even if that means adding a few minutes to the trip, according to Krafcik.

The next 10 million miles, Krafcik said, will focus on building out the ride-hailing service to make it more convenient and efficient. For instance, the company is working to improve its routes, pick-ups and drop-offs.

Waymo engineers are also applying advanced artificial intelligence and new in-house-designed sensing systems to navigate complex weather conditions like heavy rain and snow, Krafcik said.