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Waymo’s next-generation self-driving system can ‘see’ a stop sign 500 meters away

Waymo’s next-generation self-driving system can ‘see’ a stop sign 500 meters away


Better radar, more cameras, and a more powerful LIDAR

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Waymo unveiled its fifth-generation self-driving system Wednesday, which the Alphabet-owned company claims can see farther and more accurately than its previous four versions. The system features updated sensors that will improve Waymo’s ability to “see” the world around it. And it will be cheaper to produce, enabling the company to get more autonomous vehicles on the road faster and more efficiently.

Waymo’s updated system will be rolled out as part of its forthcoming fleet of Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs, which is expected to hit the road before the end of the year. Waymo has a deal in place to purchase up to 20,000 I-Paces, which will be used as part of the company’s nascent ride-hailing service in the Phoenix suburbs.

The three key pieces of Waymo’s sensor suite — cameras, radar, and laser-emitting LIDAR — have all received upgrades. The system now includes 29 cameras integrated around the body of the vehicle, providing overlapping fields of view and the ability to see a stop sign 500 meters (1,640 feet) away. Moreover, “high-dynamic range and thermal stability over automotive temperature ranges” enable Waymo’s cameras to capture sharper images in tough driving environments.

Waymo claims its radars are now the “most advanced” in any automotive system available today. The company says it “redesigned the architecture, outputs, and signal processing capabilities” to create an imaging radar system specifically tailored for self driving. Without providing specifics, Waymo said its new and improved radars will have higher resolution, range, and field of view than previous iterations. 

Waymo claims its radars are now the “most advanced” in any automotive system available today

LIDAR is widely seen as the linchpin for practically every self-driving car. Waymo, which produces its own LIDAR in-house, said its sensor can view objects both close and up to 300 meters (984 feet) away. Compare that to top-tier LIDAR-maker Velodyne’s most expensive model, which boasts 200 meters of range, or upstart rival Luminar, which claims its latest sensor can see clearly up to 250 meters with an overall range of up to 500 meters.

Of course, none of this will matter unless Waymo can prove it can efficiently manufacture all these pieces to get as many autonomous vehicles on the road as possible. Otherwise, it won’t begin to recoup the enormous costs associated with this decade-long project.

The company says it’s been road testing all its new sensors in anticipation of rolling out its fleet in new and more challenging environments. That apparently includes shooting rocks at its LIDAR sensors, as demonstrated in this cool GIF:

“With our fifth-generation hardware, we’ve simplified the design and manufacturing process so it can be production-ready,” Waymo’s head of hardware Satish Jeyachandran said in a blog post, “and our latest sensors deliver more performance than ever before, at half the cost of our previous generation.”

It’s been an eventful few days for Waymo, which announced on Monday that it had, for the first time, raised $2.25 billion in outside investment. The company did not disclose at what valuation the investors acquired a stake in it. Waymo also rolled out a cheerful ad that outlined all the ventures it plans to eventually pursue, including delivery and long-haul trucking.