Waymo is building a new replica city to test its driverless tech

Chris Davies - Dec 1, 2020, 11:01am CST
Waymo is building a new replica city to test its driverless tech

Waymo is opening two new autonomous vehicle facilities, including a dense urban playground for its self-driving passenger cars as they refine their human-replacing technology. The Alphabet-owned company, spun out from Google’s labs, currently operates a ride-hailing program in Phoenix, AZ, Waymo One, but has visions of far broader applications for driverless cars and trucks.

Waymo One recently came out of closed beta, offering app-summoned rides in a self-driving vehicle around a geofenced area. At the wheel is the Waymo Driver, the company’s name for its autonomous driving technology – including software and hardware – which it plans to apply not only to taxi-alternatives but Class 8 trucks, too.

Both of those concepts will now have a new place for research, development, and testing. First up, Waymo is working with the Transportation Research Center (TRC) in East Liberty, Ohio, to open a brand new testing environment for the Waymo Driver. It’ll be built according to Waymo’s specific requirements for its autonomous vehicles, and allow for testing rare or more dangerous events that are uncommonly seen on public roads.

“This new testing facility will model a dense urban environment and enable us to test longtail challenges you might never encounter on public roads as we continue to advance the fifth-generation Waymo Driver,” the company said today, “our most advanced software and hardware (including lidar, cameras, and radar) yet.”

Waymo will also use TRC’s other facilities, including its truck testing tracks. That’s part of the company’s focus on replacing human drivers in semi-trucks for haulage, with the Waymo Driver set to be at the heart of new autonomous trucks in a collaboration with industry heavyweight Daimler. The goal there is production driverless trucks – based on the Freightliner Cascadia – on sale in the US “in the coming years.”

Focusing on that goal specifically, a new R&D facility for trucking will be opening in Menlo Park, CA. It’ll move into the new location early in the new year, and allow Waymo space not only to refine the fifth-generation Waymo Driver on Class 8 trucks, but provide space for its fleet of test vehicles and the team working on them.

This isn’t the first time Waymo has used closed-course testing, mind. The company already has a 91 acre city mock-up, at Castle Air Force base in Merced, CA, which includes a variety of setups including suburbs and high-speed highways. There, it can run repeated trials on specific challenges – such as dealing safety with railroad crossings or roundabouts – at a much more rapid pace than out on public roads.

The TRC partnership, however, will add to that with a number of advantages. Given the location, it’ll introduce different weather types: much more rain and snow, particularly. Since autonomous vehicle sensors can be challenged by reduced visibility and other conditions, that’s an important area of testing. Waymo is also taking advantage of the proximity to Waymo Detroit, in Novi, MI, for easier transportation of newly Driver-equipped vehicles to the test site.


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