On the road with self-driving car user number one

Nathaniel Fairfield, Principal Engineer, Waymo

Back in September of 2015, I called my old friend Steve Mahan to invite him on a drive unlike any we’d done before. Steve, who is legally blind, was no stranger to the Google self-driving car project. He had ridden in the driver’s seat of our Prius vehicle in 2012, accompanied by a trained test driver (me) and police escort, and then again in 2014 in a quiet closed parking lot.

This time was different. This time I asked if he’d like to go it alone, and be the first passenger for the world’s first fully driverless ride on public roads — no police escort, no closed course, and most importantly, no test driver.

And so, on a sunny Tuesday morning last fall, I watched from the sidewalk as Steve rode down an ordinary Austin street, with everyday traffic. Our software and sensors were in full control. The wind from the open car windows was blowing through his hair, and he was chuckling as he relished the freedom and independence of being alone in a car for the first time in 12 years.

On Steve’s ride, our car successfully navigated around everything from four-way stops, to a school bus, to a pedestrian with a stroller. We drove through all kinds of intersections, made unprotected left hand turns, and nudged over for vehicles on narrow streets. What’s more, our car was prepared for even the most unusual situations — say, a couple on unicycles traveling down the road, or a car heading the wrong way down a narrow street. Six years of work went into getting our technology to a point where we could go truly self-driving. By the time Steve got into our car, I was confident our technology had the capabilities to handle even the most challenging situations.

In the months since Steve’s solo ride, our fleet has continued to rack up another million miles with test drivers in four states, and we’re exploring new neighborhoods and continuing to expand our skills and experience. As the Google self-driving car project becomes Waymo, we’re ready to take all that we learned from this first ride, and bring truly self-driving technology to millions of people. Steve’s ride was our first glimpse at what that world will be like.

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