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Waymo begins mapping the complex traffic patterns of New York City

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Enlarge / Waymos like this one will soon be scanning NYC.

Waymo is on the way to the Big Apple – at least for initial tests.

Alphabet’s self-driving car division announced it will begin mapping New York City. Starting today, Waymos will cruise through Manhattan, drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, visit Times Square, drive past Central Park, and do other common tourist activities in New York City.

Note that Waymo maps New York City and does not drive autonomously there. Safety drivers will sit behind the wheel and control the vehicles manually at all times. However, the self-driving sensors will be in full swing, scanning every nook and cranny of the company’s New York territory to create a detailed self-driving map. Once the map is created, Waymo loads the city data into a simulation to see how the Waymo Driver software reacts to daily life in NYC. Then the company can safely optimize, test and improve its software.

Waymo often appears to be a leader in the self-drive industry as it is the only company that runs a public auto-hailing service that leaves no one behind the wheel. However, the areas in which Waymo operates are extremely limited and the company’s inability or unwillingness to scale is a cause for concern. Waymo’s primary service area is Chandler, Arizona – a flat, simple, weatherproof suburb of Phoenix. While you obviously want to safely scale your self-drive service, if Waymo Driver is good enough for Chandler it should work in similar areas too. However, Waymo still seems to be in “learn mode”.
Waymo's test area in NYC.Enlarge / Waymo’s test area in NYC.

Waymo

But Waymo is still making progress. The company recently expanded to San Francisco, where it now operates a public transportation service, albeit under an NDA-restricted “Trusted Tester” program – and with a safety driver at the wheel. Waymo’s testing in New York City doesn’t mean the company will offer self-drive service there anytime soon. Waymo says it has “tested in dozens of cities with varying climates and topographies,” but still only offers ride-hailing in small areas in San Francisco and Chandler.

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Waymo says it is preparing for New York City weather as well:

The weather also gives us unique opportunities to learn. The heavy rain and heavy snowfall that we expect will build on our previous snow and rain drives and give us more opportunities to test the performance of our sensors in wet, cold conditions beyond our data expansion and simulation. Experiencing icy, snowy conditions enables the Waymo Driver to continually improve in the real world, and we will apply this knowledge to our entire fleet.

The weather poses major challenges for self-driving cars. Precipitation can block sensors or reflect lidar, resulting in anomalous readings and poor visibility. The company’s claim that it has visited “dozens of cities” has a lot to do with weather testing. A 2019 Waymo blog post announcing testing during hurricane season in Miami also mentioned testing in “Snowy Novi, Michigan; in rainy Kirkland, Washington; in foggy San Francisco; and of course in those dusty haboobs in Phoenix, Arizona ”.

Waymo says its current plan includes “manually driving five hybrid Chrysler Pacificas on the road in daylight.”

“Later on, we’ll be manually driving several of our zero-emission Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with our latest technology on the same Manhattan streets as we continue to learn from the busy traffic and unique geometrical features of NYC,” the company says. “The insights we will gain will help the Waymo Driver improve its ability to sense and predict the actions of other road users in densely populated urban areas.”

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