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Google’s self-driving Waymo cars will be picking you up soon

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
A Waymo minivan similar to one that could soon be picking you up. (image: Fortune)

AUSTIN — A self-driving car from Google (GOOG, GOOGL) may be coming to a street near you. But you won’t be able to buy it, and you’ll have to wait longer to get a ride if snow regularly features in your city’s winter forecasts.

John Krafcik, CEO of of Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo, laid out the company’s ambitions and its potential obstacles in two SXSW appearances at SXSW, an onstage interview with Vice News correspondent Evan McMorris-Santoro and an evening chat with comedian Adam Carolla recorded for Carolla’s podcast.

The potential promise here is huge — safer roads for everyone, and consequence-free napping behind the wheel for people willing to pay about what a human-driven Uber or Lyft costs today. But you may need to get over the notion of traditional car ownership along the way.

The promise of self-driving cars

“We’re working to build the world’s most experienced driver,” Krafcik said in opening his sales pitch. “Everything that we learn in one of our cars gets passed to all of our cars.”

Waymo’s software has already driven 5 million miles in U.S. cities, including an “early rider” test in Phoenix using modified Chrysler (FCAU) Pacifica minivans that began taking signups last April. Waymo has since grown confident enough to remove the self-driving-car equivalent of training wheels: a human “safety driver” at the wheel as a backup.

Powering the vehicle’s self-driving capabilities is an array of cameras, radar and Lidar sensors, many on the car’s roof, which detect everything nearby from other vehicles and pedestrians to cyclists.

At the evening event, Krafcik displayed a Lidar view of the event venue, a bar on the east side of Austin, showing people as glowing outlines. Seeing himself lit up as if by radiation, Carolla joked “I think I just got testicular cancer, so thanks for that.”

In both talks, Krafcik emphasized that Waymo’s cars aren’t connected — they don’t need a 5G wireless link to go anywhere. “The car has everything it needs to drive on the car itself,” he told McMorris-Santoro. “There are no signals coming from outer space or something telling it to turn right.”

The resulting ride may not be too exciting but is safe. “It doesn’t speed,” Krafcik added. “It’s very persnickety about following the rules.”

The Waymo system also thinks well ahead, which he said invalidated the question of how a car would decide which pedestrian to hit in a crash. “We can see three football fields down the road,” he said. “We would come to a stop before we ran into these folks.”

He added that the software does have “a hierarchy of concern” about the relative vulnerability of other road users. Presumably, an awareness that humans are squishier than cars would at least direct it to take out a Prius before a pedestrian.

Tuesday evening, Krafcik cited another benefit. “Just a few of those cars provide a really good example for human drivers to follow,” he said, citing studies showing people drove better after the addition of autonomous cars.

When and how much

Waymo’s system represents a major advance over the semi-autonomous systems of Tesla (TSLA) and GM’s (GM) Cadillac subsidiary, both of which demand continued human attention. Krafcik said passengers quickly set aside hangups over needing to trust a computer completely — a Waymo clip shows Phoenix testers taking selfies and naps.

Waymo plans to have service in every major metropolitan area by 2028, with thousands of cars driving themselves by 2020.

Its rollout will begin across sunnier climates first, though. “Snow and ice are challenging for our current system.” Krafcik said Tuesday morning. For example, the car’s sensors don’t have defrosters, although the next revision will add them.

But even then, Krafcik cautioned that Waymo cars won’t be able to cope with the sort of weather — blizzards, torrential rain storms — that keep self-aware humans off the roads.

In the same vein, he asked that states refrain from regulating Waymo’s software more strictly than the human sort, notwithstanding anxiety about artificial intelligence. “Hold us to the same standards as human drivers,” he requested.

Waymo will offer these cars as a service, telling Carolla that a ride would cost about the same as an Uber or Lyft: “a couple of bucks a mile.”

Waymo has no plan to make or sell cars itself. “We’ve always considered ourselves, in this space, as enablers of the incumbents,” Krafcik said in the morning. For instance, Avis (CAR) and AutoNation (AN) help to maintain the company’s minivans.

The overall economics argue against people owning self-driving cars–why would you want to keep one parked when it can go somewhere else on its own, and if it doesn’t need to stay at home each night why bother keeping it? Waymo and other firms banking on a self-driving future don’t see much room for individual car ownership, as much as that may dismay auto enthusiasts.

Human factors

In both talks, Krafcik kept coming back to the complexities of how people deal with their cars.

For example, he noted in the morning that Waymo had to change how cars pick up at grocery stores — the most efficient spot, outside the store exit, left other drivers waiting and left passengers feeling “a little bit guilty.” Now cars meet passengers at a shopping-cart corral.

Privacy is another issue Waymo will have to address, since their cars will know volumes about the whereabouts of passengers. Krafcik’s vague answers–for instance, “it’s something that we’re working on”–didn’t go far enough.

And because so much of our lives happen on four wheels, Waymo and other self-driving companies will have to be prepared for any aspect of human experience. Two in particular came up yesterday.

In the evening, Consumer Technology Association Gary Shapiro asked during the audience Q&A how the car would react if a passenger keeled over from a heart attack.

“We drive you straight to the grave!” Carolla replied, launching into a riff on how the car includes a “morgue mode” for this eventuality. Eventually, Krafcik added that in reality, the cars have a help button.

And in the morning, McMorris-Santoro relayed a query from friends who were unusually curious about date-night Waymo use. “I think their question was, can they have sex in a Waymo?” he asked.

Somebody in the audience shouted “Answer the question!” as Krafcik contemplated the matter.

Then replied: “We’ve done thousands of rides in Phoenix, and that hasn’t happened yet.”

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