Waymo takes sensor design in house in quest for cheaper autonomous vehicle

Waymo, the company that grew out of Google's self-driving car project, expects to have fully autonomous minivans on the road in California and Arizona this month

Waymo, the company that grew out of Google's self-driving car initiative, is seeking autonomy in more ways than one.

Its latest move is to take in-house the design of the sensor packages on which its fully self-driving vehicle platform relies.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced the move at the Automobili-D motor show in Detroit on Sunday, while showing off the latest incarnation of the self-driving Pacifica minivans the company has developed with auto maker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).

"These Pacifica minivans will be the first vehicles to be equipped with Waymo's all-new fully integrated hardware suite and we've brought our self-driving sensors now in-house. It's all designed and built from the ground up by Waymo, with every part manufactured with just one goal in mind: To safely handle the complex task of full autonomy," Krafcik told the audience.

When it became a stand-alone company last year, Waymo moved away from earlier plans to build a bubble-shaped self-driving vehicle of its own, deciding instead to work with other automobile makers to get its package of software and hardware on the road. It is already working with FCA and Honda to do that, Krafcik said Sunday.

While other companies are demonstrating self-driving capabilities in certain circumstances -- on lane-separated highways or in slow-moving urban traffic, for example -- Krafcik emphasized that Waymo's goal is a totally autonomous vehicle.

"An almost self-driving car, what one might call aspirational autonomy, simply won't cut it," he said.

The Pacifica on stage, on the other hand, brought together several firsts, he said. "It's the world's first self-driving minivan capable of getting you door to door without a person at the wheel. It's also the first product of our first collaboration with an auto maker working on a mass-production platform."

The Pacificas will be driving themselves on public roads beginning in Arizona and California later this month, he said.

Among the benefits of bringing sensor design in house is a reduction in cost, Krafcik told media present at the show. That has allowed Waymo to bring the cost of a key component, the lidar (light direction and range) sensor, down from US$75,000 each in 2009 to $7,500 today, he said.

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