Google’s Waymo Might Have Just Made Autonomous Vehicles Much More Affordable

Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik standing before a Chrysler Pacifica self-driving test car. Photo Credit: AP
Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik standing before a Chrysler Pacifica self-driving test car. Photo Credit: AP

Waymo, the new identity of Google’s self-driving car program, now says that it has cut the costs of LIDAR by 90 percent. This is a critical sensor array in making self-driving cars feasible and affordable.

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LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and you would already recognize it as the spinning turrets you’ve seen on the tops of those Google Lexuses and spurting from the hood of Faraday Future’s FF 91. LIDAR is a kind of electronic vision, I guess you could say, a kind of laser-based radar that sees everything around it in reflected points. It’s a clear, 3D view to an autonomous car’s brain of everything that’s around it. Cars, people, trees by the side of the road, buildings, all reflected back.

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One of the reasons LIDAR isn’t on all cars today is because a spinning LIDAR turret is big and bulky and weird, sure, but also because these arrays aren’t cheap. Back in 2009, a single LIDAR turret cost Google $75,000, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

Waymo’s new LIDAR supposedly costs 90 percent less, CEO John Krafcik announced this afternoon at a press conference. Krafcik showed the full array, complete with three different LIDAR sensors for short, medium and long-range, as well as eight cameras and a 360-degree radar system, as Automotive News notes. Krafcik says this array is “capable of full autonomy.”

This cost-saving would be a huge step forward for getting complete autonomy into production. One of the reasons why Faraday Future only includes a single LIDAR turret on its FF 91 is because of cost, as their assisted driving team explained to me during a press event at CES last week. Getting the price down for these arrays is crucial if anyone other than the super-rich will buy a self-driving car. It should come as little surprise that of all of the car companies currently promising autonomy in the near future, the closest ones have been aiming at the luxury segment.

The first cars to get the whole sensor array will be Waymo’s 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans that will be testing on public roads in California and Arizona.

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Hm. Arizona you say. I wonder if Uber’s self-driving taxis are programmed to run them off the road.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

jharrisoncowan
Joaquin Quinoa

Serious question—WHO THE FUCK IS ASKING FOR DRIVERLESS CARS? I can barely even be a passenger in a car, I can’t imagine anyone wanting this. I love driving. If I have to run an errand on a slow work day, I might take the long way, just because driving is maybe my favorite thing in this whole rotten world.

And yes, I know the end game is to convey goods from place to place, thus unemploying truck drivers and creating a whole new problem, but you know what would be a great place to transport goods over distance without a driver? A railroad. They travel on tracks, and all the crossways could be navigated by programming and sensors and shit.

I read downthread a bit, and I agree that I’d like to never see a texting driver again, but then the argument becomes that I’d like to see everyone else in an automated ride, while I can casually zip between the drones.

And then there is the argument that traffic will move more efficiently, and gas mileage will be better, and all of that—I can get behind that idea, but have you met people? Most people don’t give a fuck about anything other than not letting that other asshole merge before the bridge. So again, where is the demand for the driverless car?