Waymo's self-driving cars will make an appearance in New York City on Thursday, but don't expect to hail a robotaxi in the Big Apple anytime soon — or ever.
The company is a long way from testing or launching its autonomous vehicles commercially in the city. Instead, Waymo announced plans to manually drive its vehicles to map areas of the densely populated city and then use all of that data to advance its technology.
Waymo will deploy up to five of its hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans on the streets of Manhattan, from the south side of Central Park all the way to the financial district and through the Lincoln Tunnel to a small section of New Jersey. By early next year, Waymo says it hopes to bring in several of its zero-emission Jaguar I-PACEs, which will also driven manually. Each vehicle will have two people, one to drive and another in the passenger seat to help direct the activity of the driver, monitor the software on the vehicle in real time, evaluate the performance and log comments, according to Waymo.
Even though Waymo won't be operating in autonomous mode, all of the vehicles it deploys in NYC will be equipped with the fifth-generation Waymo Driver, which uses a combination of lidar, radar and cameras and is informed by 20 million self-driven miles on public roads and over 10 billion miles in simulation, according to Waymo.
"The mapping process is a critical part of our operations," Nick Smith, a Waymo spokesperson, told TechCrunch. "Here's how it works: First, we drive our Waymo vehicles on public roads and collect information with our sensor suite. Next, we take that information, clean it up and automatically or manually annotate it with features such as crosswalks, road edges, curb heights, boundary paint, intersections, etc. Then we put our newly created map through quality control testing. This process is the same no matter where we go, and is also the same process we follow when updating our maps."
Because Waymo will be manually driving around the city, its cars will be able to drive in almost any weather condition, which the company says provides unique learning opportunities for the next generation of the Waymo Driver. New York City is known for heavy rainfall, and even hurricanes, in the summer and dense snowfall in the winter, conditions that autonomous systems haven't yet figured out. Waymo says driving in NYC will allow the company to assess the way its sensors perform in wet, cold conditions in real life, rather than just in data augmentation and simulation testing.
If Waymo does choose to one day test its AVs against the chaos of New York's jaywalkers, rogue hot dog carts and daredevil cyclists, it'll need to apply for New York State's autonomous vehicle technology testing permit. In September, NYC Mayor de Blasio introduced legislation that would see companies road testing self-driving cars on the streets to apply for additional $5,000-per-year permits from the NYC DOT.
This summer, Intel's Mobileye became the first to win a permit to test its autonomous vehicle technology in NYC. Waymo says it doesn't have any immediate plans to launch in the city because it's more interested in training its self-driving system and applying the learnings across its fleet. In August, Waymo launched a limited, non-commercial robotaxi service in San Francisco and began scaling up its autonomous trucking operations in Texas, California and Arizona. The following month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles awarded Waymo a "drivered deployment permit," which is a step in the direction of launching a paid robotaxi service in the state.