Autonomous Car Company Waymo Begins Mapping Our City

Photo: Waymo
Photo: Waymo

They’ll be watching you.

Five camera-covered Chrysler Pacificas will be driven (by a human) all over the bottom part of Manhattan starting today as part of an effort by the autonomous vehicle company Waymo to survey our streets for future use in autonomous vehicles.

As if New York City was not congested enough... Map: Waymo
As if New York City was not congested enough… Map: Waymo

Not to worry (at least not yet). For now, the company says it is deploying the five hybrid vehicles — each contributing in its own small way to congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and the ongoing oppression of city residents — simply to study Gotham’s “bustling avenues, unusual road geometries, complex intersections, and constantly evolving layouts” and its “heavy rain and dense snowfall [sic].” The information will later be used in the digital maps that, futurists hope, will make autonomous vehicles safer than the ones driven by humans (and responsible for a rise in pedestrian deaths nationally and locally).

“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,” the company said.

The company boasted that its plans for a driverless future already have the support of our future mayor, Eric Adams, who is quoted in the Waymo statement saying, “Autonomous vehicles hold the promise to dramatically improve traffic flow and expand access to convenient and affordable transportation for millions of New Yorkers. I’m excited to welcome Waymo to New York so that one day we can have safe autonomous technology on our streets.”

Thus far, only one autonomous vehicle company — Mobileye, a division of Intel — is testing self-driving cars in the city, albeit with a human behind the wheel. Streetsblog reviewed that company’s 40-minute video and found that the car operates safely, though often so safely that human drivers operate their vehicles recklessly out of frustration with the rule-following car.

That testing is ongoing. The arrival of Mobileye, which has a New York State permit, prompted the city Department of Transportation to hurriedly issue its own permit rules, which are currently in effect, despite concerns from the industry.

Look for the camera- and sensor-covered Waymo cars primarily south of Central Park, the company said. “Our operations will extend down through the city to the Financial District and also out to a small section of New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel.” The operation will later include zero-emission Jaguar I-PACEs, the company said.

The autonomous car future begins and ends with perfect maps of our imperfect world, Waymo said in a different statement from last year.

A self-driving vehicle uses multiple sensors which work together as its eyes and ears, providing information about the world around it, from other vehicles and moving objects, to traffic lights and vegetation lining the sides of the road. In addition to this powerful sensor data, Waymo’s self-driving vehicles also have the advantage of knowing what the road ahead looks like. The Waymo Driver gets this knowledge from its highly detailed, custom maps that provide our vehicles important context in every location we drive.

Waymo’s cars don’t require a DOT permit (nor do 5,000-pound SUVs, by the way), but we reached out to the agency this morning to seek comment. Agency spokeswoman responded, “Waymo alerted us to their mapping plans, not to be confused with AV testing, as a human will be driving the vehicles at all times. Safety is our top priority and any future AV testing by Waymo in NYC would require a permit from both the state and city.”