Waymo’s self-driving minivans and big rigs arrive in two more states

Waymo, one of the leaders in autonomous-vehicle technology, is taking its self-driving cars and trucks to more states for testing on public roads. It hopes to expand the scope of its autonomous software in the coming months.

From this week, its driverless vehicles will be heading to Texas and New Mexico for the first time as Waymo seeks to expose its technology to a wider range of conditions, and gather more data for potential commercial truck routes that could eventually deploy its autonomous “Waymo Driver” kit.

Alphabet-owned Waymo, which was formerly operated by Google, announced the news in a tweet posted on Thursday, January 29.

Waymo already has its sights set on a full-fledged robo-taxi service, a limited version of which is already operating in Arizona with its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans, but the self-driving trucks present another commercial opportunity for the company, namely, freight transportation. The upcoming tests in Texas and New Mexico follow similar trials of its autonomous big rigs in Arizona and Georgia.

“We’ll be driving along many of the interstates like I-10, I-20, and I-45, mapping the interesting and promising commercial route between the states and exploring how our tech might be able to create new transportation solutions. Texas has high freight volume and is a favorable environment for deploying AVs and is therefore very interesting to Waymo,” the company told Digital Trends in a statement. Its heavy-duty Class 8 trucks will each have a safety driver behind the wheel. It’s not clear how many trucks Waymo will use for the trial, however.

The autonomous technology fitted to its big rigs is similar to that used by Waymo’s smaller vehicles, with an array of cameras, radar technology, and lidar sensors working to ensure a smooth and safe ride for the truck and its contents. Before trucks hit the road, a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica-based prototypes will be deployed to generate maps of Texas and New Mexico. The comprehensive process involves driving the cars so they record their surroundings, cleaning up that information, improving it by annotating features like crosswalks and curb heights, and putting the map through quality control testing. It’s only fed to prototypes when engineers are sure the information is 100% accurate.

“These are not normal maps in the way that most people think of them. The things that our cars care about are quite different than someone trying to find their way to a restaurant via Google Maps or Waze. For example, it’s far more important for us to know the speed limit of the road than the name of it. However, a human needs the name in order to navigate to their destination correctly,” Waymo told Digital Trends.

It added mapping data tells its prototypes what the world looks like without cars. The technology then focuses on identifying the factors susceptible to changing without notice, like other road users, pedestrians, and construction zones. Even the best suite of autonomous technology is lost if it doesn’t have access to ultra-accurate maps.

Waymo is one of a number of companies exploring the idea of autonomous trucks. San Diego-based TuSimple, for example, announced a partnership with the USPS in 2019 for a mail transportation trial across multiple states using its self-driving big rigs, while Volvo has been experimenting with different kinds of autonomous trucks designed for specific tasks. Starsky Robotics also has a similar system in the works.

Just recently, California-based startup Plus.ai reportedly completed a cross-country trip with a prototype autonomous truck. A safety driver and back-up team supervised the three-day trip.

Updated 1-24-2019: Added quotes from Waymo.

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