In Short: Waymo's fleet of self-driving cars recently hit 10 million miles driven autonomously, equivalent to the driving a human may do in multiple lifetimes. That experience is all on public roads out in the real world, where human drivers, pedestrians and all sorts of obstacles are just waiting to put the cars' autonomous systems to the test. In a blog post, Waymo reveals one of the biggest factors in reaching this milestone relatively safely; simulation. While the cars have taken quite a while to hit 10 million real miles driven, they drive that much just about daily in simulations, which can happen faster than driving in real life, can involve more vehicles driving at once than are actually in Waymo's fleet, and can entail any crazy situation Waymo thinks up, even outside of the normal constraints of the real world.
Background: In an accompanying video, Waymo engineer Nathaniel Fairfield reveals the project's humble beginnings and shows off some of the situations that Waymo's cars can now overcome. The vehicles started out with tons of people monitoring their every move and making adjustments to the AI as needed, leading to the joke, "How many engineers does it take to drive a self-driving car?" After extensive training, however, the cars were demonstrated seeing a faraway pedestrian in a dust storm thanks to lidar technology, noticing an interaction between a jogger and a couple with a dog spilling into the street and predicting what would happen next and how to react, and otherwise avoiding potential disasters simply by being more vigilant than any human driver would be capable of being.
Impact: Waymo's self-driving vehicles are leading a growing industry with the promise of revolutionizing transportation in many ways. For starters, Waymo's cars have already been proven to be safer than human drivers, and in almost every crash thus far, the autonomous systems have not been at fault. In one case where the car was at fault, for example, the safety driver fell asleep at the wheel and accidentally engaged manual mode, leading the car to crash. Other self-driving car companies and projects are arguably far behind Waymo; Uber is one of the more staggering examples, having been involved in multiple crashes of late including a fatal pedestrian strike in Arizona that temporarily shut down some parts of the company's self-driving ambitions. Self-driving taxis will be safer, cheaper, faster and more efficient than humans in almost every way, and in some areas, they're already here. Fairfield, in his video, expressed his excitement at the concept of self-driving technology spreading out and making transport more accessible and safer for all.