Although Waymo was granted permission to launch its autonomous cars without a human driver on Midpeninsula streets by the Department of Motor Vehicles earlier this month, some residents at a community meeting in Palo Alto on Tuesday night vowed to put the brakes on the project while others embraced the technology wholeheartedly.
Waymo representatives met with about 50 residents at Cubberley Community Center to allay fears about public safety and describe how the driverless cars work. The company does not plan to have cars operate fully autonomously in Palo Alto and other local cities in the near future, said Sydnee Journel, local policy and community manager. But when it does, it will notify city officials and the DMV, though she did not have a timeline for when that might occur.
Mountain View-based Waymo has spent a decade gathering data and putting its technology through the paces. In 2009, it tested the technology using driver assistance on Toyota Prius vehicles and worked on 10, 100-mile routes, including on all Bay Area bridges, she said. It tackled freeways through 300,000 miles of testing in 2012 using Lexus cars, then moved using driver assistance on city streets in the Bay Area in 2013.
It developed a fully driverless car, the Firefly, this year, which is the first vehicle to no longer have a steering wheel and pedals.
The company received permission from DMV to run a fleet of 39 cars in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale.
Resident Penny Ellson asked what sources of third-party safety data the company has and how the data was independently validated for Waymo's technology. Journel said the company follows federal government vehicle safety regulations and state rules and local regulations regarding public safety.
The federal Department of Transportation has guidelines for autonomous vehicles and the Society of Automotive Engineers has set industry standards for autonomous vehicles that Waymo follows. The company is also working with the National Safety Council, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Department of Transportation and DMV to set parameters, Journel said. The company is also working with local law enforcement.
The technology has clocked in 10 million self-driving miles on public roads, worked through 20,000 scenarios using National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data to ensure the cars can handle most common scenarios leading to collisions and tested the cars in 25 cities. The company has also recorded 7 billion practice miles driven in simulation.
Journel showed images of how the cars are programmed to pick out individuals out of a crowd of hundreds of people so it can distinguish each individual or object's movements. The refinement allows the car to take in more information than a human driver normally perceives while driving, she said.
Waymo launched an "early rider program" in Phoenix, Arizona in early 2017, providing residents access to the fully self-driving fleet each day throughout an area twice the size of San Francisco, she said.
The cars communicate directly with each other most of the time to signal how they should interact, but whenever there are confusing or unknown situations, the cars send a message through cellular systems to a dispatch center where humans direct the vehicles, she said.
When a school bus in the Phoenix area was involved in an evacuation drill with children exiting the vehicle, a Waymo car near the scene sent a message to the company's dispatch center, which radioed to all other Waymo vehicles in the area to avoid the scene, she said.
"The most outstanding thing is the Waymo will obey traffic laws and will force people to follow the laws," she said.
But some Palo Alto residents had reservations that the Waymo cars won't actually cause accidents or consequential damages. Frustrated human drivers in other vehicles could speed up and cut around the Waymo, which can cause head-on collisions when the drivers cross into oncoming lanes.
One resident, who declined to be named, said he and his neighbors plan to file a lawsuit to prevent the cars from being on Palo Alto streets. He said he saw an accident near Alma Street and San Antonio Road where there is a traffic island and the Waymo car went left instead of right. A child on a bicycle fell over and hit her head, he said. The driver assisting the vehicle left the scene and, when later confronted by residents, refused to provide his name, the man said.
"This is a burden on our city. I'm not against technology, but we're going to storm City Hall if these cars come to Palo Alto," he said.
Waymo officials said that cities couldn't choose to keep the autonomous vehicles off the road. The decisions come only from the state through DMV.
Noah Durant, an operations team driver who assists the Waymo vehicles while traveling in the city, said that some people have road rage when they encounter the autonomous vehicle driving the speed limit and obeying laws. "That's understandable," he said.
But the car can compensate for another driver's bad behavior. "The car is very conservative of its surroundings" when taking any action, he said.
One thing the car can't do it to teach children how to read clues from the cars regarding its behaviors. Human drivers wave someone on to cross in front of them, for example.
Parked curbside outside the meeting room, a Waymo vehicle attracted numerous residents. Its revolving LIDAR tracking device, radar, cameras and sensors continually gathered data.
Fred Bockmann, an admirer of the technology, said he is excited about the autonomous car. He purchased one of the first Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles eight-and-a-half years ago and is looking forward to the advances that were only dreams 12 years ago.