How do you test a self-driving car during a pandemic?

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waymo simulation

COVID-19 has forced most businesses to adopt virtual workplaces and Google spin-off Waymo is no different. The autonomous car company may have temporarily suspended all on-the-road operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the testing of ‘Waymo Driver’ has not stopped.

Waymo has created completely simulated driving scenarios to gauge how the system would respond to different driving conditions. For this, the company is leveraging the real-world data that its driverless vehicles have already captured through sensors such as cameras, LiDAR, inertial measurement units, radars, and GPS, while clocking over 20 million autonomous miles on public roads in 25 US cities.

Each driving scenario is manipulated virtually and new agents are added to make the situation more complex. For example, a cyclist or continuous oncoming traffic while making an unprotected turn. See below:

waymo simulation

While ensuring that testing is representative of real-world behavior, Waymo engineers are also creating entirely synthetic scenarios that the vehicles have never encountered before. The team hopes that this practice would train and equip the software to handle both common and rare situations.

“At Waymo, one day in simulation is like driving more than 100 years in the real world. In simulation, we drive around 20 million miles a day, expanding the scale and complexity of our experience,” the company explains in a blog post. “To date, we have driven over 15 billion miles in simulation, and we continue to increase the velocity of our learning.”

The simulations are as much about rider comfort as they are about providing the safest autonomous driving experience to humans. Using the feedback received from on-road testing, Waymo is training its machine learning models on several metrics, including the most comfortable braking speed and making sure that the car drives without any jerks.

“While real-world driving is an essential part of our validation process, the majority of learning and development is done in simulation, well before the updated version of the Waymo Driver is rolled out in the real world,” the company points out. “Even though we’re not currently driving in the real world, we’re continuing to gain thousands of years of experience through simulation during this time.”

Ishveena is a geospatial enthusiast and a veteran of creating and managing compelling digital content for organizations and individuals. When she is not making magic at her desk, you are likely to find her exploring nature, eating her way through life, or binge-watching funny animal videos.