The Secret’s Open: Inside the Former Air Force Base Where Google’s Waymo Is Building Its Self-Driving Future ""

By | October 31, 2017

Castle-Main

At first glance, the grounds surrounding Castle Air Force Base seem like they belong to a bygone era. A military aviation museum along a nearby highway boasts an SR-71 Blackbird, which first flew in 1962 and remains one of the fastest airplanes ever built; a former Air Force One aircraft used by multiple presidents; and a B-52 Stratofortress bomber that pays homage to the base’s roots as a training ground for World War II and Cold War–era pilots.

Located amid parched farmland north of Merced, California, the base was shuttered as part of military budget cuts in 1995. In a nod to the hard times that followed, government officials built a federal prison alongside the 11,800-foot runway that once launched some of the military’s most ambitious aviation projects. Yet, while the B-52s are long gone, ambitions still run high at the site.

The first indication comes with a small green sign affixed to a gate just past a security post: “Welcome to Castle. Home of Moonshots.” Inside a fence that rings 91 acres of buildings and streets left over from the facility’s military past, Waymo has been testing autonomous technology that could soon transform the way Americans travel. Such tests have occurred on the Castle grounds since 2013, when Waymo was still known as Google’s self-driving-car project. Today, the area is teeming with self-driving minivans that operate without anyone sitting behind the wheel.

Until the past few months, the work taking place here has been kept under wraps. But on Monday, Waymo lifted the veil of secrecy around these cars, showcased its Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, and offered us a few more concrete details on its plans to commercialize a technology that industry competitors say grows closer to reaching the marketplace every day.

Waymo-bike

Last week, General Motors chief executive officer Mary Barra indicated the company will begin testing driverless cars in “quarters, not years.” John Krafcik, Waymo’s CEO, wouldn’t delve into specifics Monday or commit to any time frame, but he affirmed the company’s intent to avoid advanced driver-assist technologies and commitment to producing a Level 4 self-driving system—one that eliminates humans’ role in the driving process.

The self-driving technology has “super obvious” applications in ride-sharing or ride-hailing environments, Krafcik told Car and Driver, such as the service Waymo has tested in a pilot project currently operating in Phoenix, Arizona. But he suggested Waymo’s business models could be further used in trucking and logistics and by working directly with cities on developing methods to shuttle riders from their doorsteps to existing public-transportation options. Not to mention in cars that are still sold to individual owners.

“We’re focused on building a really safe, capable driver, and we can deploy that for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “Those are all the things we have in mind for our future business.”

Much of Waymo’s effort over the past eight years has been spent perfecting the technology that underpins its autonomous systems. Here at Castle, we’re told, engineers simulate 10 million miles of driving every day toward that effort. Recently, the company has focused on developing an experience for users that emphasizes not just the competence, but the ease and reliability of vehicle operations.

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A glimpse at the interaction between human and machine is one of the most revealing aspects of the showcase event we attended on Monday. As we waited outside a building on the campus, a minivan operating without a safety driver behind the wheel pulled in to a small parking lot to take us on a tour of the Castle facility. Four buttons located on a panel affixed to the minivan’s second-row ceiling were the linchpin to the journey. Once we were buckled, a fellow rider pressed the one marked Start Ride, and we were on our way.

“We’re focused on building a really safe, capable driver, and we can deploy that for a lot of different reasons.”

— John Krafcik, Waymo CEO

For half a minute or so, we were highly unnerved to watch the steering wheel turn itself without so much as a human minder in the front seats. For now, this kind of driverless test is relegated to private roads and campuses like this one. But the California Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed new regulations that could permit such driverless testing on public roads throughout the state beginning sometime in 2018. The vehicle’s movements are seamless and smooth, and riders aren’t subjected to any harsh braking or other herky-jerky motions. It was a graceful journey, and that helped the fact that we were traveling using autonomous technology quickly fade to the background while our attention shifted to the inside of the van.

The interior of the minivan looks a lot like the higher-end trim levels of the Pacifica you can buy at your local dealer. There are plush leather seats, USB ports within easy reach, and two touchscreens mounted to the backs of the front-row seats. Rather than featuring games for kids to play, as in the regular Pacifica, these screens are the windows for most of the interactions riders will have with Waymo’s technology.

Castle-screens

For any riders jittery about the competence of the technology—which might be the majority of Americans, according to recent surveys—these screens depict a high-definition view of what the car’s lidar sensors perceive around the vehicle. “It’d be a little overwhelming to show it all the time,” said Ryan Powell, head of user-experience design for Waymo, so important objects, such as depictions of nearby pedestrians or bicyclists, pulse every five seconds.

At certain times, the images will be augmented with words on the screen. When a pedestrian begins walking in front of the vehicle, “yielding to pedestrian” flashes on the screens. When it’s nearing a stop, it says “looking for a spot to pull over.” A status bar across the top shows how much time has gone by during the ride and how many more minutes remain until we reach our destination, much in the same way the time remaining is displayed while a song plays in iTunes.

“It’s reinforcing the idea the car knows what it’s doing,” Powell said.

That’s a notion affirmed in both the technical and legal realms. When our vehicle approached a right turn, it slid from the right lane into the bike lane to prepare for the turn. Among the three riders in our vehicle, the possibility a traffic law had been broken was raised: It’s illegal for cars to travel in bike lanes, right? Not in California. Cars are permitted to travel in the bike lane within 200 feet preceding a turn, according to the California DMV’s traffic regulations. This shows how vehicle performance can be tailored to follow state-by-state laws or regulations.

Castle-driveway

Our Pacifica turned right and proceeded along Shirley Muldowney Expressway, a road named after the iconic drag racer. We traveled for a quarter-mile before the Pacifica slowed because there was a broken-down Hyundai Elantra in the oncoming lane ahead. (We wondered to ourselves whether the brand of the disabled vehicle was merely a coincidence or a clever jab arranged by Krafcik at the company he once helmed, and we came to no sure conclusions.)

With a push of another one of the four buttons affixed to the ceiling panel, we called for help for this motorist, as we could do for ourselves if needed. In much the same way General Motors’ OnStar works, a remote operator answered our call. His name was Justin, he told us he is based in Austin, Texas, and he was ready to assist with whatever we needed. These operations could also be conducted via chat in an app, Waymo officials said, although we didn’t see a demonstration of that on Monday.

In a self-driving realm, these remote operators may take on a greater role. Many companies are outfitting their vehicles in such a way that remote operations will be possible, so that an employee could help resolve tricky situations that might stymie self-driving technology. California’s proposed regulations, in fact, will require remote connections with vehicles in some fashion. Krafcik remained tight-lipped about how Waymo is approaching that challenge.

Waymo officials also declined to provide other specifics, such as the number of cars it’s testing at Castle or how arrangements work on data sharing when partners like Lyft and FCA are involved in the business aspect of operations. But the firm did offer detailed information about its operations in a recent safety assessment voluntarily submitted to federal safety regulators. And now that Waymo is showcasing a once secret facility and giving rides with no human safety drivers involved, it’s clear the company’s confidence in its technology is growing.

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