SAN FRANCISCO -- For years the Google coders and roboticists working on driverless cars have focused on making sure their creations could drive safely around California roads. Now, comes the next big test: getting regular civilians comfortable passing the wheel to a machine.
This month, Waymo, the mobility division created by Google parent Alphabet Inc., is starting a free, experimental service that will ferry people around Phoenix, Ariz.
In preparation, Waymo has added a new suite of hardware and interior designs to its cars, revealed here for the first time, that will help the vehicles see their surroundings better and transmit that information to their occupants. The project's technology chief Dmitri Dolgov says the upgrades will ease passengers' concerns.
This is no small matter. While driverless cars have demonstrated a remarkable ability to navigate a complex world, every hiccup makes news. Google vehicles have been involved in several fender benders, and a Tesla Model S operating in Autopilot mode crashed into a semi-trailer, killing the owner.
The test will be watched closely by the tech and auto industries; a sour experience could turn off consumers, many of whom are skeptical of autonomous vehicles.
"They don't trust that the technology is going to work 100 percent of the time," says Kathy Rizk, director of Global Automotive Consulting at J.D. Power, which has conducted surveys showing that while consumers are enthusiastic about driverless cars, they remain wary. "How do you put your trust in something that's going to take over the entire vehicle?"
Waymo originally planned to study human-robot interactions with its own concept car -- a round, pint-sized vehicle codenamed Firefly that maxed out at 25 miles per hour and lacked a steering wheel and pedals. But California regulators insisted that the test vehicles must include controls so a human could take over.
Waymo has since cut a deal with Fiat Chrysler to use tricked-out Pacifica minivans with all the usual controls that are now cruising around Phoenix. Waymo employees will keep watch in the driver's seat during the test.
Waymo believes regulators will eventually approve fully autonomous cars without the means for a human to take control. As a result, it may be necessary for the car to tell passengers what it's doing (suddenly slowing down, say) and explaining why (because a dog ran into the street).
"How do people control the car? How do they tell the car where they want to go?" Dolgov asks rhetorically. "Some of those more subtle things -- explaining those to the user, to the customer, to the passenger -- is what we've been working on."
Waymo has recruited several managers who worked on user design with popular Google products like Chrome and Android. This month, the company also hired a "user experience" researcher, who is supposed to help make passengers' time in the cars "intuitive, accessible, fun -- and even magical."
In a mockup viewed by Bloomberg, a special dashboard displayed nearby cars, pedestrians and buildings -- an effort to give people confidence that the car is competent and in control. Some nearby cars were lit up, if they were relevant to the situation. Others were shown less prominently.
The message: Don't worry, the system sees the cars and understands which ones to track. Knowing buildings are there isn't critical, but showing them in outline helps orient passengers in the world. And when the vehicle yields to make a turn at a green light, the words "waiting for intersection to clear" appear. (The company stresses the design isn't final.)
Beyond keeping passengers feeling safe, there are practical issues. Because passengers will enter via the rear doors, Waymo's self-driving system brings the vehicles to a stop several feet forward from where traditional cars would pull up.
Since Waymo was spun out of Alphabet's X lab in December, it has thrown resources and talent at the hardware underpinning its autonomous vehicles. The division has hired aggressively, including several engineers from Terra Bella, the satellite division Google sold earlier this year, according to a person familiar with the situation. Waymo has also hired a number of reliability engineers from Tesla, a Waymo spokesman confirmed.
Earlier this year, the division unveiled a new suite of the sensors and chips that make autonomous cars possible. Not only are they cheaper, they also can generate a 360-degree view around the vehicle and see pedestrians and cars at far longer ranges.
Newer cameras help the cars better navigate rain, a persistent challenge. Tiny wipers added to the spinning lidar atop the roof help mitigate a surprisingly routine problem: bird droppings. The new sensors can now see other vehicles and objects up to 200 yards away, Dolgov says.
Among the thorniest challenges are so-called edge cases, unusual situations that must be mastered by the technology, such as anticipating the sometimes unpredictable actions of human drivers. Waymo's latest hardware and software do a better job of figuring out how quickly cars are merging into freeway traffic, anticipating when someone is about to pull a U-Turn and navigating unprotected left turns -- a particularly tricky maneuver because the car must figure out whether it has time to turn before oncoming traffic reaches the intersection.
Dolgov says these advances give him confidence Waymo is ready to ferry around people who don't work for Alphabet. So bullish is Waymo that it deliberately chose a depot in Phoenix that forces its minivans to turn left into oncoming traffic.
Still, Dolgov knows better than to be overconfident.
The company held a very limited trial of its vehicles in Phoenix for two months and quickly found itself grappling with dust storms. "We're in the learning phase," he says. Waymo may have a new avenue to expand road tests beyond Phoenix: the company cut a deal with Lyft Inc., which operates its ride-hailing service in at least 300 U.S. cities.
Google has a history of rosy forecasts for fully self-driving cars, which some analysts say are still decades away. The company is also known for designing products with little idea of how they'll be received. Some became huge successes (gmail); others didn't (Google Glass).
Waymo is acutely aware of this history, which may explain why it has taken so long to get a driverless service up and running. Competitive pressure may have forced its hand. Uber Technologies Inc., locked in a court battle over allegations it stole Waymo technology, has started its own self-driving tests in several cities. Tesla Inc. is aggressively expanding the Autopilot feature across its model lineup. And, of course, major automakers are all hard at work on their own robot cars.
Waymo may have an edge over the traditional car companies. In J.D. Power focus groups, people said they believed tech firms -- including Tesla -- are more capable of perfecting the technology. Still, persuading people to actually get in one of these vehicles with no human fallback will take some effort.
"The reality is that the technology will be safer," says Chris Rockwell, the founder of user research firm Lextant. "That doesn't necessarily get the passengers on board."