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Transforming mobility with self-driving cars

Firefly Waymo prototype driving on road.

The challenge

Every year 1.25 million people around the world die from car accidents. Of these accidents, an estimated 94% are caused by human error. A common culprit? Human inattention, made worse in recent years by the rise of mobile devices.

This begs the question: what if cars could drive themselves safely from point A to point B? X was home to the Google Self-Driving Car project, which had 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 for those unable to drive. In 2016, the project graduated from X to become Waymo.

94% of vehicle crashes in the US are caused by human error. Source: NHTSA

Waymo vehicles have sensors and software designed to detect hundreds of objects 360 degrees around the vehicle, even in the dark.


Fully self-driving technology

  1. Shape

    Rounded shape maximizes the field of view for the rooftop sensors.

  2. Sensors

    LiDAR, radar and cameras detect objects in all directions.

  1. Interior

    Designed for riding, not driving.

  2. Sensors

    LiDAR, radar and cameras detect objects in all directions.

  3. Sensors

    LiDAR, radar and cameras detect objects in all directions.

  1. back up

    Additional systems for computing, steering, braking and more.

  2. control

    Onboard computer designed and built specifically for self-driving.


Building a safer driver

When the Self-Driving Car project began in 2009, the team needed to prove that it was even possible to make a car drive itself. To do this, the team developed custom software and made hardware modifications to a Toyota Prius and set out to tackle over 100,000 miles of autonomous driving on public roads. This testing included some extremely challenging routes on the Golden Gate Bridge, the curves of Lombard Street in San Francisco, and up mountainous roads to Lake Tahoe. It worked, so the team kept going, and over time added a second test vehicle, the Lexus RX450h SUV.

Early Waymo prototype driving on road.
Early Waymo prototype, a Lexus driving on a bridge.

Early on, the team focused on freeway driving because it’s a simpler driving environment to master: stay in your lane, maintain speed, don’t hit the car in front of you. The cars were offered to a handful of Googlers to use on their daily commute to learn how people would really use the technology. The response was overwhelmingly positive — users said the car made their commute less stressful and tiring. But the team also learned that it wasn’t reasonable to expect people to pay attention throughout a ride and be able to take back control of the car at short notice. This insight into human behavior and the team’s commitment to safety led them to commit to an even more audacious mission: a fully self-driving car that could take anyone from A to B.

As the software team turned their attention to teaching the car to drive on city streets and to recognize pedestrians, cyclists, and hundreds of distinct objects and road users, a team of designers and hardware experts set about exploring what it would really take to build a self-driving car from the ground up. Ultimately they built an adorable prototype nicknamed “Firefly,” though some people insisted it looked like a koala. Firefly was designed to be neighborhood-friendly and approachable, and it had no steering wheel or pedals. All the sensors the car needed to “see” the world were smoothly integrated into its shape.

360 degree rendering of Waymo sensor information.
Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, riding in a Firefly Waymo prototype.

In 2015, these cars began cruising the streets of Mountain View, CA, and Austin, TX. In late 2015, Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, rode in a Firefly from a park to a doctor’s office on the world’s first fully self-driving trip on public roads. His ride was possible because the cars were capable of handling 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 next.


Improving road safety for everyone

In December 2016, with over two million miles of self-driving experience on the roads — the equivalent of 300 years of human driving — the Self-Driving Car project graduated from X. Today it’s Waymo, a self-driving technology company with a clear mission: to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around. Waymo’s first public trial is currently underway in Phoenix, AZ where the team continues to deliver on their quest to improve road safety and mobility for everyone.