Waymo

In 2016, Waymo graduated from X to become an independent Alphabet company. Waymo started as the self-driving car project in 2009, with the goal of developing technology that could transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing road deaths caused by human error, reclaiming the billions of hours wasted in traffic, or bringing everyday destinations within reach of those unable to drive.

The Moonshot

Huge problem

Close to 1.25 million people die on roads every year globally, and 94% of those accidents are caused by human error.

Radical solution

What if cars could drive people safely from point A to point B at the push of a button — without needing a human to take over driving at any time?

Breakthrough technology

Vehicles could have built-in sensors to detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more from a distance of up to two football fields away in all directions. Smart software could predict the behavior of objects and road users to help the vehicle navigate the vehicle safely through everyday traffic.

Jeff, one of our engineers, worked on basic functionality like ignition, braking and steering for this early prototype in 2014.

The Investigation

Our first challenge was to prove this technology could work: drive 100,000 miles autonomously on public roads and drive ten “interesting routes” of 100 miles each. The team developed custom software and made hardware modifications to a Toyota Prius to begin testing the self-driving technology. After a year and a half, we completed the challenge—including driving the Golden Gate Bridge, the curves of Lombard Street in San Francisco, through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and up to Lake Tahoe. So we kept going.

In 2012, we began using our second test vehicle based on the Lexus RX450h which could self-drive on freeways. At this point, we had completed more than 300,000 miles of testing without any accidents in self-driving mode.

How would people use a self-driving car?

Early on, we focused on freeway driving because it’s a simpler driving environment to master. To learn how people would use this technology in their everyday lives, we offered the cars to a handful of Googlers for their daily commute. They agreed to pay 100% attention to the car, as the technology was still early-stage, and they might have to re-engage the steering wheel. However, human nature kicked in: people trusted the technology very quickly once they saw that it worked.

On the upside, everyone told us that our technology made their commute less stressful and tiring. One woman told us she suddenly had the energy to exercise and cook dinner for her family, because she wasn’t exhausted from fighting traffic. But we also saw some silly behavior, including someone who turned around and searched the back seat for his laptop to charge his phone – while traveling 65mph down the freeway! In the end, our tests led us to the decision to develop vehicles that could drive themselves from point A to B, with no human intervention. A fully self-driving vehicle would also help everyone get around, not just people who can drive.

Could a vehicle be built from the ground up to drive itself?

For freeway driving, we had started testing our self-driving technology by adding components to existing cars like our Lexus SUVs. For city streets, we began designing a new prototype to better explore what a fully self-driving vehicle could look like. The prototypes had no steering wheel or pedals… because they didn’t need them. Our software and sensors were built into the cars to do all the work of driving. The vehicles were capped at a neighborhood-friendly 25mph and, in 2015, began cruising the streets in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas.

Our first complete prototype, built from the ground up for fully autonomous driving (December 2014).

Could we navigate the complexities of city streets?

City street driving is considerably more complex than freeway driving. The team had to master the technical challenges of recognizing pedestrians, cyclists and hundreds of other distinct objects and road users, each with their own unique behaviors. As it turns out, what looks chaotic and random on a city street to the human eye is actually fairly predictable to a computer. By 2014, after logging 700,000 autonomous miles and encountering thousands of different situations, we had built software models of what to expect on the road—from the likely (a car stopping at a red light) to the unlikely (blowing through it). Proving that we could navigate thousands of situations on city streets, autonomously, we became optimistic that we could deliver self-driving technology that operates fully without human intervention.

Was a fully self-driving vehicle possible?

In 2015, we completed the world’s first fully self-driving ride on public roads in Austin, TX with no steering wheel, no pedals and no test drivers. Steve Mahan, former CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, rode alone in the vehicle. Steve is legally blind, so our sensors and software were his chauffeur. His route reflected the way millions of people could use a self-driving car in everyday life: riding from a park to a doctor’s office and through typical neighborhoods. This ride was possible because the cars can now handle even the most difficult driving tasks, such as detecting and responding to emergency vehicles, mastering multi-lane four-way stops, and anticipating what unpredictable humans will do on the road.

What the car sees (and much of what humans don’t). LiDar sensors give our cars a real-time full-field of vision.

Graduation

By 2016, the cars had accumulated over 2 million miles of self-driving experience on the roads – the equivalent of 300 years of human driving. It’s been a long journey. The self-driving car project was our first moonshot at X which helped us define moonshots to be huge problem affecting millions of people that could potentially be solved by a science fiction-sounding technology. We still use this definition today as our north star for vetting ideas and our mission as a company.

The project is now Waymo, an independent Alphabet company. Waymo joins our other X graduates, who have followed a variety of pathways out of X to make a positive impact on the world. Perhaps most inspiring to all of us at X is the team’s audacity to aim for the higher bar – a fully self-driving car – to deliver the biggest impact on improving road safety and mobility for everyone.