Waymo is bringing its fleet of self-driving cars to Detroit, a city steeped in car history. The Alphabet unit announced today that it would begin testing its autonomous vehicles in Michigan just in time for an icy winter. The goal would appear to be twofold: teach self-driving cars how to handle slippery, unplowed roads; and thumb their nose at the legacy automakers who are scrambling to keep up to Alphabet’s big head start in autonomy.
Starting in November, Waymo’s self-driving cars and minivans will hit the road in and around Detroit, the company says. And like in other tests, a trained safety driver will be behind the wheel to monitor the car’s progress. But it won’t be Waymo’s first foray on dangerously snowy streets: the company has previously tested its vehicles in winter conditions outside Lake Tahoe.
“For human drivers, the mix of winter conditions can affect how well you can see, and the way your vehicle handles the road,” said John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, in a blog post. “The same is true for self-driving cars. At Waymo, our ultimate goal is for our fully self-driving cars to operate safely and smoothly in all kinds of environments.”
sending a shiver up the spine of Detroit’s Big Three
The arrival of Waymo’s autonomous vehicles may, however, send a shiver up the spine of Detroit’s Big Three: Ford, GM, and Fiat-Chrysler. (Though probably not the latter, which has sold its Chrysler Pacifica minivans to the company for its fleet.) Waymo made its first appearance in the cradle of the US auto industry last year, when it opened its 53,000-square-foot self-driving technology development center in Novi. Last January, the company took the stage at the North American International Auto Show to unveil for the first time its self-driving minivans. So it was probably only a matter of time before the company began testing in Detroit too.
To be sure, most of the legacy automakers are testing their own self-driving cars, but Waymo has a significant lead, having been working on the technology long before the company spun out of Google in late 2016.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder used the occasion to recast the state’s place in the rapidly shifting auto market. “It’s great that a leader in autonomous vehicle development is going to expand its work in Michigan — the center of the rapidly expanding mobility industry,” he said in a statement. “Waymo clearly shares our concern for and commitment to safety for Michigan residents. I’m proud that Waymo chose Michigan to expand its testing as they take their self-driving vehicles into the next phase.”
Waymo already has vehicles on the road in Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Phoenix, Arizona. The latter city is also playing host to Waymo’s ride-hailing pilot, in which real people can sign up to use the minivans for daily trips. The company is reportedly getting closer to launching its first commercial venture too.