Introducing Waymo’s suite of custom-built, self-driving hardware

Last month, Waymo CEO John Krafcik delivered a keynote address at NAIAS’s inaugural Automobili-D conference in Detroit. Below is a post adapted from his speech detailing Waymo’s new self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan and our new custom-built suite of self-driving sensors.

In May of 2016, we sat down with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to collaborate on building 100 new Waymo self-driving Pacifica minivans. With these vehicles on the roads, the Pacifica minivan is the most advanced self-driving car to date. Thanks to years of in-house research and development, these minivans are equipped with Waymo’s all-new custom-built fully-integrated hardware suite.

In the early days of our project, our hardware was comprised of sensors and compute systems from a multitude of suppliers. Not only were they limited in capabilities, they were also expensive. For example, a single LiDAR on top of the car cost more than the car itself! We soon realized that in order to reach what the Society of Automotive Engineers classify as Level 4 autonomy — and make it safe, reliable and accessible — we needed a fundamentally different approach. That’s why we designed and built all of our self-driving sensors from the ground up, with every part manufactured to safely handle the complex task of full autonomy.

Having our hardware and software development under one roof is incredibly valuable. Our sensors are developed in close collaboration with our software experts who specialize in AI techniques like machine learning. All of our sensors — including LiDARs, vision system, and radars — are deeply integrated with the brain of our self-driving cars and specially designed for our software. A single integrated system means that all the different parts of our self-driving technology work together seamlessly. Like a person’s own five senses, our sensors are more useful and more powerful when we put them all together.

LIDAR

LiDAR is one of the most powerful sensors in a fully self-driving car. It can distinguish between a pedestrian and a picture of a person. It can also see shapes in three dimensions, detect stationary objects, and measure distance precisely. The Waymo self-driving Pacifica minivan has a complete system of three different types of Waymo-built LiDARs that allows us to detect more objects and see them at a higher resolution.

Given self-driving cars are built for the complexities of city driving, including streets filled with cyclists, pedestrians, and any number of unexpected objects, the cars need a more detailed view of the world than traditional LiDARs can offer. The detail we capture with our custom LiDAR is so high that not only can we detect pedestrians all around us, but we can tell which direction they’re facing. This is incredibly important as it helps us more accurately predict where someone will walk next.

In fact, two of the three LiDAR we built are actually completely new categories of LiDAR. First, our new short range LiDAR is positioned to give the car a completely uninterrupted surround view — down, behind and next to the vehicle’s body — so we can safely see small people and objects, no matter how close they are to the car. Second, we’ve developed a first-of-its-kind long range LiDAR that’s capable of quickly zooming into objects on the road. This powerful LiDAR lets us see a football helmet two full football fields away.

Designing our own LiDAR system has not only given us a more reliable product than what we can get off-the-shelf, but it’s enabled us to develop it at a fraction of the cost. Just a few years ago, a single, top-of-the-range LiDAR unit would have cost upwards of $75,000. From the design process alone, we have brought down that cost by more than 90%. As we bring our technology to more people, we’re confident we can make it even more affordable.

VISION SYSTEM

While driving-assist camera systems used in cars are quickly becoming popular, they have a few critical limitations. Similar to the human eye, cameras have a hard time seeing in difficult lighting conditions (think about the last time you drove in the early morning or late afternoon with the sun directly in your eyes).

A fully self-driving car needs to operate safely in all lighting conditions. So, our custom vision system — which allows us to see things like traffic lights and stop signs — is comprised of 8 vision modules each using multiple sensors, plus an additional, forward-facing, super high resolution multi-sensor module, enabling 360-degree vision. With this resolution, we can detect small objects like construction cones far away even when we’re cruising down a road at high speed. And with a wide dynamic range we can see in a dark parking lot, or out in the blazing sun — or any condition in between.

RADAR

Conventional automotive radars have a narrow field of view and typically only track forward moving cars. In contrast, Waymo’s custom radar system has a continuous, 360 degree view, so it can track objects and vehicles usually hidden from the human eye. Our radars are capable of monitoring a vehicle as it comes up from behind and as it moves out in front of us without any interruption.

They also complement our other sensors by being highly effective in rain, fog or snow. Conventional radars have been designed to focus solely on vehicle movements. However, our fully self-driving cars need to safely navigate around all road users, from cars to pedestrians to cyclists. So, we’ve configured our radars so that they’re much more sensitive to these slower moving objects.


Taken as a whole, this custom-built suite of sensors creates a virtuous cycle with our software. Better hardware gives us better data to develop our software; and as our software become more sophisticated, we get better at optimizing the most important aspects of our hardware. It’s this tight integration that has made the entire suite more robust and more cost effective, bringing self-driving technology closer to reality for more people in more places.

Ultimately, this integrated software and hardware platform will let us deliver products and services that make getting around safe and easy for everyone. Some of these we may do on our own. Some we may work on with partners. That’s why we’ve been so intensely focused on getting the technology right, ensuring this can scale, and working with companies like FCA, Honda and others. We are mastering the hardware and software to build a better driver for a fully self-driving car.

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