Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google, has a very specific setup for how their cars are built and equipped to see and react to the world around them. With a large number of new self-driving vehicles, including some self-driving Chrysler Pacifica units, set to hit the streets of California and Arizona in the very near future, it's a good time to take a look at exactly how these autonomous automobiles tick, with a special focus on the sensors that let them see the world around them, quicker and clearer than any human driver can.
The sensor array's main component is lidar. A sort of light-based radar, a lidar system uses a laser to detect all sorts of objects from great distances. Over time, the self-driving cars' AI will get better at figuring out what these objects actually are, how they will affect them, as well as how and when they should react to them. This component costs Google about $7,500 apiece to manufacture themselves, with third-party lidar sensors costing far more. Accompanying the lidar sensor is an array of cameras around the car, all pointed at different angles in order to impart 360-degrees of vision to the car. Finally, a bona fide radar exists as a fallback for when the lidar system isn't working for whatever reason, like when its laser is obscured by things like fog or snow.
On the inside and under the hood, a self-driving car has most of the trappings of a traditional smart vehicle, but integrated closely with a centralized AI. Self-driving cars phone home to Google to hand in data they've gathered and to connect with other self-driving cars to benefit from their data. At the center of it all is a complex AI based on machine learning that gathers more data about how to drive, with humans occasionally spoon-feeding some details. Everything from the brakes to the windshield wipers are controlled by this smart system, though most self-driving cars coming out right now also have options for a human to take over in case of emergency, or when the self-driving systems run up against something that they can't quite wrap their sensors around. In the near future, however, Google and others hope to eliminate this limitation, allowing individuals who otherwise could not drive to nestle comfortably behind the dashboard of a self-driving car and get where they need to go.