Waymo uses its own fake city to push the limits of self-driving car technology

August 29, 2017

Waymo, the self-driving car technology company that spun off from Google, developed its own artificial city for its fleet of test vehicles.

Waymo and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles cooperate on their development of self-driving vehicles, and FCA recently announced a further collaboration with BMW and Intel.

Nicknamed Castle, the test city was built on the remnants of the decommissioned Castle Air Force base in Central California. The Castle originated as an army training facility during World War II, but the area now features a series of roads that mimic real-world scenarios proven to confuse Waymo’s development vehicles in live testing.

Waymo invited The Atlantic into its city to experience the artificial proving ground, and the virtual world in which the test vehicles operate. The scale-sized town is purpose-built. Roads aren’t lined with buildings or anything else that the engineers deem unimportant to the artificial intelligence they’re tasked with creating. Just as you don’t change your driving pattern based on the size of buildings around you, neither will the self-driving vehicles.

Waymo self-driving prototype

Waymo self-driving prototype

Enlarge Photo

Real world testing in Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Mountain View, California; results in plenty of data for engineers to parse. While most of that data is every bit as mundane as your typical grocery store run—a very good thing—the self-driving cars can get confused from time to time. The data from those instances is then used to simulate the car’s weakest areas, so engineers can tweak the software to improve the car’s driving.

Software engineers developed a program called Carcraft, which tests all sorts of traffic scenarios involving upwards of 25,000 virtual cars driving around representations of the three cities. When significant difficulties arise, the cars’ data is used to construct accurate representations of confusing streets at the Castle facility.

Real-world simulations then take place, combining virtual traffic along with real cars on real roads. Actual drivers deliberately cut off the self driving cars time and again, and the reactions are recorded, analyzed, and adjusted if necessary.

Waymo isn’t the only company doing such testing, of course. The University of Michigan famously operates MCity, a 32 acre facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where dozens of companies, including the likes of GM and Toyota, test their self-driving technologies.

The controlled environment gives engineers a chance to push the boundaries of the technology without risking personal or property damage out in the real world.

-- by Aaron Miller

2017
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