Google develops own suite of autonomous car sensors

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Google Inc.’s self-driving car project, Waymo, is developing a new autonomous driving system that it will begin testing on custom-built Chrysler minivans later this month in Arizona and California.

The system features an entire suite of new sensors — “vision system,” radars and LiDAR — that were built in-house by the Silicon Valley heavyweight. Waymo says building the devices internally enabled it to trim the $75,000 cost of its first LiDAR in 2009 by 90 percent to $7,500, a remarkable reduction in cost.

“Designing our own LiDAR system has not only given us a more reliable product than what we can get off-the-shelf, it’s enabled us to develop it at a fraction of the cost,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said Sunday during a speech at the Automobili-D tech conference for the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “This is a big step in making this technology affordable and more accessible to millions of people.”

It's also a challenge to the traditional auto industry, whose biggest players   — General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Germany's Big Three  —  have signaled their intent to develop self-driving technology largely on their own. The reason: they believe winning in the emerging autonomous space will depend on who can successfully develop the technology, meld it with electrified vehicles and scale it to mass production.

"This is going to be fascinating because you’re probably going to have a more-capable, ready-advanced system waiting at Google’s offices for any automaker that wants to go there and pick them up," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "The end game is to do what Google does, which is to take something that is becoming extremely important to society and make it as cost effective and easy to use as possible."

LiDAR is one of the most powerful sensors in a fully self-driving car. It can distinguish between a pedestrian and a mural of a person. It can see shapes in three dimensions, detect stationary objects and measure distance precisely.

With the LiDAR combination, Krafcik said the vehicles have a completely uninterrupted surround view, allowing the company to “see small people and objects very close to the car, and spot tiny objects far away, too.”

Waymo said the new system includes two new categories of LiDAR: A short-range and a long-range LiDAR. This is in addition to a medium-range LiDAR that the company has used on top of the car in the early days of its project.

Krafcik said the LiDARs pick up where the “radars and cameras leave off and vice versa.” He said the new camera “vision system” includes eight vision modules using multiple sensors, plus an additional forward-facing high resolution multi-sensor module, enabling 360-degree vision. It also includes enhanced radars with “a continuous 360 degree view.”

Waymo’s technology is built for Society of Automotive Engineers-certified Level 4 automated driving, which means the vehicle can operate in most circumstances autonomously but may at some point need a human driver to physically take over. Level 4 is where many believe the real acceptance and benefit of autonomous driving will be seen in the near- to mid-term for consumers.

Waymo's ability to significantly cut the cost of LiDAR and other technologies brings into question what exactly the company plans to do with the technology once it's ready to be widely implemented for consumers. The company has said it does not want to produce its own vehicles; however, it could make plays to launch its own business using vehicles from partner automakers or supply the systems to automakers.

John Krafcik delivers a keynote speech at the AutoMobili-D Atrium Stage.

"The idea of getting up to scale quickly would put them into a good leadership position," said Senior Analyst and Director of Pricing and Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell. "They’re trying to develop a lot of the technologies in-house, I don’t necessarily see them as a supplier. I do see them wanting to be a dominant player in this space, and that’s the way to do it."

Most of the world's largest automakers have spent billions developing their own systems. But they don't necessarily have the experience, expertise and cash of Waymo, which remains a subsidiary of Google.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, a company that isn't believed to have invested heavily on autonomous vehicle technologies, in December announced it had completed building 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to be retrofitted with Waymo’s technology. The partnership was announced in May.

The minivans will more than double Waymo’s self-driving vehicle fleet, which has driven more than 2.5 million miles since the project started in 2009. Its current fleet of vehicles includes 24 Lexus RX450h SUVs and 34 Google prototype vehicles that test in Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Phoenix.

“With the integration of Waymo’s self-driving hardware and software, these Hybrid Pacificas become the most advanced cars on the road,” Krafcik said. “Importantly, through years of R&D, we’ve been able to make these more cost-effective so they could one day reach millions of people.

Waymo has a four-time improvement in the performance of its self-driving software in the past year as well as accelerating testing. The first 1 million miles of testing took six years; the third million is expected to be completed in just eight months.

“With the world’s first truly autonomous ride under our belt, and now as a new company, Waymo, we’re getting ready to let many more people use and experience a truly self-driving car,” Krafcik. “All this work I’ve outlined today is in service of that goal.”

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Twitter: @MikeWayland

Detroit News staff writer Ian Thibodeau contributed