Waymo leads self-driving car race

A Jaguar I-Pace self-driving car at its unveiling by Waymo in New York.
A Jaguar I-Pace self-driving car at its unveiling by Waymo in New York.PHOTO: REUTERS

The subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is ahead of the curve in outpacing nearest rivals by at least a year

DETROIT • In the race to rev up the world's first driving business without human drivers, everyone is chasing Waymo. 

The subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is ahead of the curve in outpacing nearest rivals by at least a year to introduce driverless cars to the public.

A deal reached in January to buy thousands of Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which get kitted out with sensors that can see hundreds of metres in any direction, puts Waymo's lead into stark relief.

Rival General Motors plans to start a ride-hailing service with its Chevrolet Bolt only late next year while most of the others are more cautious, targeting 2020 or later.

The road to autonomy is long and exceedingly complicated. It can also be dangerous: Two high-profile efforts, from Uber and Tesla, were involved in recent crashes.

Yet while Waymo has "developed a phenomenal system and is ahead of the pack", Mr Brian Collie, head of Boston Consulting Group's United States automotive practice, said that is "very different from being able to manufacture an autonomous vehicle. You have to look at GM. In Europe, Daimler is leading the pack".

The finish line is not just reaching Level Four on a five-step scale of autonomous driving. That is the threshold at which a car can handle anything on planned routes without the intervention of a driver.

Only Waymo has tested Level Four vehicles with passengers who are not its staff - and those people volunteered to be test subjects. No one has yet demonstrated at Level Five, where the car is so independent that there is no steering wheel.

The era when most people ditch their driver's licence and rely on self-driving taxis still remains far off. The technology costs more than the car and, with few players testing the cars for the public, widespread adoption is years away.

For now, the runaway leader is Waymo, which has run self-driving cars in 25 cities and done billions of kilometres in computer simulation which it uses to update its self-driving software weekly.

The company also has, by far, the lowest rate of disengagement - times when an engineer needs to grab the wheel because the bot could not handle it - among all companies testing cars in California.

It also reported fewer accidents while testing in California last year.

Waymo had three collisions over more than 560,000km while GM had 22 over 200,000km.

But GM has one advantage - there is a factory north of Detroit that can crank out self-driving Bolts. That will help the company get manufacturing right and lower costs without relying on partners.

An autonomous version of the car costs around US$200,000 (S$269,000) to build, compared with a sticker price of US$35,000 for an electric Bolt for human drivers.

Staying close to the frontrunners is Mercedes-Benz, which started selling an adaptive cruise-control system in the late 1990s on its flagship S-class sedan.

The system could sense when the car was bearing down too quickly on someone's rear bumper ahead.

Today, Mercedes models with Intelligent Drive get closer to real self-driving because the system can help steer the vehicle clear of pedestrians and avoid other accidents.

It is one reason Navigant Research, which studies auto technology, ranked parent company Daimler third, behind Waymo and GM.

Daimler's head of development Ola Kaellenius said Mercedes will offer Level Three autonomy as an option in the cars it sells by 2021.

This means that the car can handle most driving while prompting the driver to take over only in certain situations that the computer cannot get a grip on.

Fully self-driving cars will be on the road at the same time, he added, but would be used for ride-sharing services because they would be too expensive for retail customers to buy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2018, with the headline 'Waymo leads self-driving car race'. Print Edition | Subscribe