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Waymo will start mapping the complex traffic patterns of New York City

Enlarge / Waymos like this one will soon be scanning NYC.

Waymo is headed to the Big Apple—for initial testing, anyway.

Alphabet’s self-driving car division announced it will start mapping New York City. Starting today, Waymos will be cruising around Manhattan, going through the Lincoln Tunnel, visiting Times Square, driving by Central Park, and doing other usual New York City tourist stuff.

Note that Waymo is mapping New York City, not autonomously driving there. Safety drivers will be behind the wheel, manually controlling the vehicles at all times. The self-driving sensors will be on full blast, though, and they will scan every nook and cranny of the company’s New York City territory to create a detailed self-driving map. Once the map is built, Waymo will load the city data into a simulation to see how the “Waymo Driver” software reacts to daily life in NYC. Then the company can tweak, test, and improve its software safely.

Waymo often seems like the leader in the self-driving industry, as it’s the only company operating a public car-hailing service with nobody behind the wheel. The areas Waymo operates in are extremely limited, though, and the company’s inability or unwillingness to scale is starting to be a concern. Waymo’s main service area is Chandler, Arizona—a flat, simple, weatherless suburb of Phoenix. While you obviously want to scale your self-driving service safely, if Waymo Driver is good enough for Chandler, it should also work in similar areas. Waymo still seems to be in “learning” mode, though.

Waymo's NYC testing area.
Enlarge / Waymo’s NYC testing area.

Waymo

But Waymo is still making progress. The company recently expanded to San Francisco, where it is now running a ride-hailing service for the public, albeit under an NDA-constrained “Trusted Tester” program—and with a safety driver behind the wheel. Waymo’s New York City testing doesn’t mean the company will offer a self-driving service there soon. Waymo says it has “tested in dozens of cities spanning a diverse range of climates and topographies,” but it still only offers ride-hailing in small areas in San Francisco and Chandler.

Waymo says it is gearing up to deal with New York City’s weather as well:

The weather also gives us unique opportunities to learn. The heavy rain and dense snowfall that we expect to encounter will build on the driving we’ve completed to date in the snow and rain, giving us more opportunities to assess the way our sensors perform in wet, cold conditions beyond our data augmentation and simulation testing. Experiencing icy, snowy conditions will allow continued improvement of the Waymo Driver in the real world, and we will apply those learnings across our entire fleet.

Weather presents a large challenge for self-driving cars. Precipitation can block sensors or reflect lidar, leading to anomalous readings and lower visibility. The company’s assertion that it has visited “dozens of cities” has a lot to do with weather testing. A 2019 Waymo blog post announcing testing during Miami’s hurricane season also mentioned testing in “snowy Novi, Michigan; rainy Kirkland, Washington; foggy San Francisco; and of course those dusty haboobs in Phoenix, Arizona.”

Waymo says its current plan involves “manually driving with five hybrid Chrysler Pacificas on the street during daylight.”

“Later, we’ll manually drive several of our zero-emission Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with our latest technology on the same streets in Manhattan, as we continue learning from NYC’s busy traffic and unique geometric features,” the company says. “The insights we’ll gain will help the Waymo Driver improve its ability to perceive and predict the actions of other road users in dense urban areas.”

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