Waymo Begins Testing Autonomous Ride-Hailing Service With No Safety Drivers Behind the Wheel

Last month, self-driving company Waymo began operating autonomous minivans on public roads in Arizona, in tests that were conducted without a safety driver "or any human at all" behind the steering wheel. Today, the Google-owned company announced it's now beginning the first steps toward launching a ride-hailing service backed by a fleet of completely self-driving vehicles (via The Verge).

To start, Waymo will begin testing the autonomous driving service with its employees in Chandler, Arizona, then expand to members of Waymo's Early Rider program before finally seeing a public launch in the town sometime in the next few months. Users will hail the vans through the Waymo app and when they arrive there won't be any safety drivers or other humans in the driver's seat, but a Waymo employee will still sit in the backseat.


The test vans will be able to travel anywhere within a geofenced 100-square-mile radius of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. While there are understandable caveats to Waymo's ride hailing service tests, it is notable as the company's first time achieving Level 4 autonomy, where a vehicle is expected to perform "safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip" without someone behind the wheel.
The next step for Waymo is a big one: a commercial ride-hail service, in which riders can hail one of the company’s autonomous minivans via an app like Uber or Lyft. “People will get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles, to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, or run errands,” Krafcik said.
Waymo has been testing its self-driving vans in Arizona because the state's laws regulating autonomous tests "are practically non-existent." Arizona lacks regulation that requires companies to publicly disclose accidents involving its autonomous vehicles, and various other potential self-driving related incidents, like the number of times a human driver was forced to take the wheel.

According to Chandler's mayor Jay Tibshraeny, "Waymo's work here in Chandler is groundbreaking as they work toward their goal of fully autonomous vehicles. At the same time, this research and development taking place in our community will ultimately make our roads safer and provide new freedom for those unable to drive."

Waymo has multiple competitors in the self-driving market, previously engaging in a legal dispute with Uber earlier in 2017. In February, Waymo accused Uber of stealing Waymo's own self-driving LIDAR system, and then a few months later, Uber fired the engineer accused of stealing the self-driving secrets from Waymo.

For Apple, the Cupertino company has reportedly scaled back its vehicle-related ambitions, with the most recent reports detailing the development of an autonomous service that would shuttle employees around its campus.

Tag: Waymo

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Uber Fires Engineer Accused of Stealing Self-Driving Secrets From Waymo

In the ongoing legal battle between Uber and Alphabet-owned Waymo, Uber announced this week that it has fired Anthony Levandowski, the engineer accused of stealing Waymo's self-driving intellectual property when he left his job at Google to start his own company, Otto (via The New York Times). In the original lawsuit, Waymo claimed that when Uber acquired Otto, Levandowski's stolen trade secrets came with the purchase, mainly centering around Waymo's LiDAR system.

In the months following Waymo's filing, Uber denied the accusations and "pressured Mr. Levandowski to cooperate" with the court. When he was ordered by a federal judge to give the court any evidence related to Waymo's accusations, as well as a testimony, he was said to have asserted his Fifth Amendment rights in order to avoid self-incrimination. The judge gave Levandowski an internal deadline to hand over the evidence in question, and when he missed it Uber decided to fire him.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (left) and former employee Anthony Levandowski (right)

According to legal analysts watching the case, if Levandowski continued to be employed by Uber, "the company risked being tarnished...as if it were indirectly condoning his actions."
“Over the last few months Uber has provided significant evidence to the court to demonstrate that our self-driving technology has been built independently,” Angela L. Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel for employment and litigation, wrote in an email to employees. “Over that same period, Uber has urged Anthony to fully cooperate in helping the court get to the facts and ultimately helping to prove our case.”

She added: “We take our obligations under the court order very seriously, and so we have chosen to terminate his employment at Uber.”
When the lawsuit was filed in February, Levandowski and "other former Waymo employees" were accused of stealing around 14,000 confidential Waymo files that included data on Waymo's laser-based radar (LiDAR) system, which the company called "one of the most powerful parts" of its self-driving technology. Federal prosecutors began investigating the case earlier in May, while also partially granting Waymo's request for an injunction against Uber's self-driving efforts as the case continues.

Besides Waymo's lawsuit, Uber has also faced troubled waters this year when the Department of Justice began investigating the ride-hailing company over its use of "greyball" software that let drivers operate in places where the Uber app is restricted.

It also came out this year that Apple CEO Tim Cook threatened to remove Uber from the iOS App Store in 2015 after discovering that Uber was secretly "fingerprinting" iPhones that used the app. Uber said the decision was made to prevent fraud, making sure users could no longer create multiple fake accounts on one device to collect new account bonuses, despite knowing that its method was in direct violation of Apple's app privacy guidelines.

Although Uber's self-driving future is uncertain, Waymo has made progress in recent months with the launch of an autonomous car program in Phoenix, as well as the announcement of a partnership with Lyft that plans "to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream."

Tags: Google, Uber, Waymo

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Lyft and Waymo Announce Partnership That Will Bring Autonomous Vehicle Program to Mainstream

After opening up a self-driving car program to the public in Phoenix, Arizona last month, Alphabet-owned Waymo has now officially partnered with ride-hailing app Lyft (via The New York Times). The two will work together in order "to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream" by launching various pilot projects and helping one another to develop products for the mass market.

Like its rival Uber, Lyft has been looking into autonomous vehicle technology recently, but the company lacked extensive research and development it needed to launch a self-driving car program on a wide scale. Waymo has that tech, but doesn't have the reach of Lyft, which currently operates in approximately 300 cities in the United States. In a statement, Lyft said that the partnership will help forward a "shared vision" that each company has of a self-driving future.


As The New York Times pointed out, it also suggests that Waymo thinks its self-driving-car technology "has moved past the research stage and is ready to be applied commercially."
“Waymo holds today’s best self-driving technology, and collaborating with them will accelerate our shared vision of improving lives with the world’s best transportation,” a Lyft spokeswoman said in a statement.

A Waymo spokesman said, “Lyft’s vision and commitment to improving the way cities move will help Waymo’s self-driving technology reach more people, in more places.”
The specifics of what type of vehicles and products that drivers and riders might see from the collaboration were left unconfirmed, as was a launch window for any related self-driving program. Waymo said that its early, closed test of self-driving cars in Phoenix was a success, which led to the company's decision to expand the test to 600 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

Uber has tested and faced trouble in the autonomous vehicle space in the past, resulting in the removal of its self-driving cars from the roads in California as well as a lawsuit aimed at the company, filed by Waymo. U.S. federal prosecutors are investigating Waymo's claim that former Google employee Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 confidential files, including data on Waymo's LiDAR system, which the company called "one of the most powerful parts" of its self-driving technology.

Levandowski left Google's self-driving project for Otto, a self-driving trucking company that Uber acquired for more than $680 million last year. U.S. district judge William Alsup partially granted Waymo's bid for an injunction as the case remains ongoing, and could ultimately roadblock any further progress Uber attempts to make in its autonomous vehicle efforts.

Apple is believed to be working on an autonomous driving system as well, with an end-of-2017 deadline for the team to "prove the feasibility" of the tech, so the company can then decide what direction it wants to take in the self-driving market.

Tags: Lyft, Waymo

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U.S. Prosecutors to Investigate Uber’s Alleged Theft of Waymo’s Self-Driving Trade Secrets

A U.S. judge presiding over Waymo's trade-secrets theft lawsuit against Uber has asked federal prosecutors to investigate the claims in the case, it emerged on Thursday (via Bloomberg).

U.S. district judge William Alsup also partially granted Waymo's bid for an injunction against Uber's self-driving efforts, and rejected Uber's arguments that the trade secret allegations should proceed in private.


Google's self-driving Waymo car division originally filed the lawsuit against Uber in February, accusing the company of stealing its self-driving intellectual property.

Specifically, former Google employee Anthony Levandowski is accused of stealing 14,000 confidential files that included data on Waymo's laser-based radar (LiDAR) system, which the company called "one of the most powerful parts" of its self-driving technology.

In referring the case to the U.S. Department of Justice, Judge Alsup said that in the absence of "smoking gun" proof of wrongdoing by Uber, he was not taking a position on whether or not charges are warranted, but noted there was "ample evidence" that Levandowski had breached his duty of loyalty to Waymo.

Uber declined to comment on the referral to prosecutors, while Levandowski has already recused himself from LiDAR-related work while the case is ongoing, but the news is yet another setback for the ride-hailing service as it attempts to revive its tarnished image following multiple controversies over recent months.

The Department of Justice is already investigating the company over its use of "secret" software that allowed its drivers to operate in areas where Uber was banned or restricted. The so-called "greyball" software is said to have allowed the company to identify undercover officials and block them from booking rides, in order to prevent them from proving that Uber was operating illegally.

Last month it emerged that Apple CEO Tim Cook threatened to pull Uber's app from the App Store in early 2015 after discovering that it was secretly "fingerprinting" iPhones that used the app. Uber said it used the identification method to prevent fraud, despite knowing the tactic is a clear violation of Apple's app privacy guidelines.

Tags: Uber, Waymo

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Waymo Opens Up Self-Driving Car Program to the Public in Phoenix Following Initial Success

For the last month, Waymo has been testing out a small fleet of self-driving vehicles with a handful of participating residents in Phoenix, Arizona, and this week the company has noted the success of that test by opening up applications to join its autonomous car program to all Phoenix citizens. Dubbed the "early rider program" and stocked by 600 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, Waymo said it will be accepting "hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds and transportation needs" into the program.

The Waymo trial is extensive, offering those participating full-time, on-demand access to one of the self-driving minivans, which can drive the participants anywhere within the targeted area, equivalent to "about twice the size of San Francisco." Waymo said that its intention in the test is to really delve into the reasons why people would prefer using an autonomous vehicle over a traditional car.

In a new video posted today to highlight Waymo's self-driving van, one of the first families in the program mention small but meaningful advantages like taking stress from traffic out of the equation, and not having to ask a parent for a ride every day.

Our early riders will play an important role in shaping the way we bring self-driving technology into the world — through personal cars, public transportation, ride-hailing, logistics and more. Self-driving cars have the potential to reshape each and every one of these areas, transforming our lives and our cities by making them safer, more convenient and more accessible.
Now, the early rider program is open up to the Phoenix public at large. During the application process, Waymo asks potential participants to answer questions including why a self-driving car is most needed in the household and how it would improve the lives of those who use Waymo's van. Although the test is expanding this week, the company still says that it is accepting only a "limited number of early riders at this time."

Waymo originally began as a self-driving initiative within Google in 2009, and then spun off into a subsidiary of Alphabet late last year. Besides Waymo, a growing number of companies have shown interest in self-driving vehicle technology, but none have yet to launch a program as practical as Waymo's current public test in Phoenix. Uber has tested a fleet of self-driving cars in places like San Francisco, but the car-hailing company subsequently faced restrictions from the California DMV and pulled the cars from the road.


Even Waymo itself sued Uber earlier this year, with Waymo claiming that Uber stole its self-driving intellectual property. The lawsuit was specifically tied to Waymo's LiDAR system, which works by bouncing millions of laser beams off of surrounding objects to create a 3D picture of the world for detecting and avoiding objects. Waymo alleged that a former Google employee had stolen the LiDAR data after he had moved over to Otto, a self-driving trucking company that was then acquired by Uber.

In the midst of the self-driving car boom, Apple is now rumored to be working on an autonomous car software of its own that could be placed within existing vehicles. Early rumors of an "Apple Car" have since been dashed "for now" as the company focuses on building the self-driving system. The team behind that initiative is said to have until the end of 2017 to "prove the feasibility" of its autonomous technology, at which time Apple will officially decide a final direction for the platform.

Tags: Alphabet, Waymo

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Alphabet’s Waymo Accuses Uber of Stealing Self-Driving LiDAR System

Google parent company Alphabet's self-driving Waymo car division today filed a lawsuit [PDF] against Uber, accusing the company of stealing its self-driving intellectual property.

In blog post shared this afternoon, Waymo explains that employees of Otto, a self-driving trucking startup recently acquired by Uber, allegedly stole technical information from Google's autonomous car project, something it equates to "stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company."


Specifically, former Google employee Anthony Levandowski, who co-founded Otto, is accused of stealing 14,000 confidential files that included data on the laser-based radar system used in Waymo vehicles. Waymo conducted a forensic investigation of Levandowski's former computer after accidentally receiving an email of Otto's LiDAR circuit board, which closely resembled Waymo's design.
We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo's various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo's LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo's design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop.

Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo's highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.
According to Waymo, its LiDAR system is "one of the most powerful parts" of its self-driving technology. Waymo's LiDAR system works by bouncing millions of laser beams off of surrounding objects to create a 3D picture of the world for detecting and avoiding objects.

Alongside Levandowski, Waymo says other former employees who now work for Otto and Uber downloaded other confidential files ranging from supplier lists to manufacturing details.

Waymo is asking for an injunction against Otto and Uber to stop the misappropriation of its designs, and it is asking for the return of all trade secret information and for Otto to cease infringing on Waymo patents.

As Google and Uber fight over self-driving car patents in an increasingly competitive market, Apple is rumored to be quietly developing its own autonomous driving system for use in third-party vehicles.

Apple was originally said to be working on its own full-fledged vehicle, but later scaled back its plans and refocused on autonomous driving software after internal staff restructuring. Apple has reportedly given its car team until 2017 to "prove the feasibility" of a self-driving car system.


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Google’s Waymo Unveils Fleet of Self-Driving Chrysler Pacifica Minivans

Google spin-off Waymo unveiled its fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in a preview event ahead of the North American International Auto Show on Sunday (via USA Today).

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, told attendees at the Detroit event that the fleet packs an array of new sensors that were all developed in-house, including an enhanced vision system, improved radar and laser-based lidar.

Waymo Google minivan
"We're serious about creating fully self-driving cars that can help millions of people, and to do that we have to oversee both the self-driving software and the self-driving hardware," said Krafcik.
The autonomous vehicles are the result of a partnership between Google and Fiat Chrysler that was agreed last spring, and represent the first time Google has chosen to build self-driving technology itself, rather than turn to third-party manufacturers. As a result, Waymo said the company had been able to cut costs by 90 percent.

But apart from cutting costs, Krafcik told attendees that building the hardware in-house had allowed the company to develop better technology, such as an improved rooftop radar system, or Lidar, that allows the cars to read more information off the environment.
"The detail we capture is so high that not only can we detect pedestrians all around us, but we can tell which direction they’re facing," said Krafcik. "This is incredibly important, as it helps us more accurately predict where someone will walk next."
The hybrid vehicles will join the company's Lexus SUVs and Firefly vehicles on public roads in California and Arizona later this month to speed up testing. Waymo has yet to reveal when the self-driving system employed in the minivans will be ready to install in production vehicles, but the companies are thought to be planning an autonomous ride-sharing service to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft.

Apple's self-driving technology plans remain tightly under wraps, but Cupertino is thought to be developing its own autonomous driving system for use in third-party vehicles. The company is said to have given its car team until 2017 to prove the feasibility of a self-driving vehicle system.

Apple revealed its interest in the emerging self-driving market in November 2016 when it sent a letter to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, suggesting that new entrants to the auto industry should get the same rights as established companies.

Tags: Google, Waymo

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