Waymo AV Depot offers a glimpse into the autonomous future


(TNS) — They say seeing is believing. On a crisp, sunny February morning, a ride through San Francisco in a Waymo fully self-driving vehicle and a stroll through the company’s depot was indeed an eye-opener.

I’m Ryan Fisher, and along with my colleague Andrew Grant, we saw a trip to the West Coast for BloombergNEF’s San Francisco summit as a chance to do some on-the-ground research. After our work at the conference was done, we headed to the Bayview District to see Waymo’s operation in action.

The self-driving company spun off from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is operating a pilot transit service in the city, with a few hundred self-driving vehicles. So one of the first things you notice when you arrive at the depot are the buzzing cars, including Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicles and Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrids. All are fully equipped with an array of sensors, including a 360 degree lidar system.

First, we jumped into one of the vehicles for a spin. The 15 minute ride was mundane and the experience was no different than calling and riding an Uber. Some details have jumped out at us as a sign of the extent to which automakers and dealerships in particular will be impacted by the rise of AV vehicles. It seemed symbolic to us that the Jaguar Leaper badge on the electric I-Pace would be covered by a set of cameras with the Waymo logo, underlining the tension between the two brands as automakers try not to be eaten by a largest system integrator and simply become a manufacturer of hardware on wheels.

The I-Pace is a stylish vehicle designed to be driven, but it’s not an optimal vehicle for a robo-taxi service (Waymo and Jaguar announced their long-term strategic partnership in 2018). The backseat fit alongside my co-worker and the Waymo rep was snug. The dimensions of AV vehicles are likely to be redesigned in the future to suit the purpose of the vehicle. Ride-sharing leaders Didi and Uber have enlisted the help of established automakers to do just that. Driverless and potentially steering wheel, there’s more room to work. A center console in the I-Pace offers the ability to play your own music – it’s easy to imagine it as a console for video content or shopping and games appearing on larger, better-positioned screens.

The trip got us thinking about the feasibility of AV ownership models and what would be best for automakers. Tesla’s thesis is that its fully autonomous vehicles will one day be upgraded to full-fledged robo-taxis, and individual owners will be able to offer rides to users through a ride-sharing platform. Robot taxi developers like Waymo and its General Motors-backed rival Cruise operate on a centralized vehicle ownership model. Cruise, for example, has signed an agreement with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority to be the exclusive provider of self-driving taxis and ride-sharing services until 2029.

Each of these approaches presents challenges. Can Tesla bring the technology to market safely while using ordinary drivers for testing and will it be possible to make the technology cheap enough for personal ownership? Especially when the industry is converging around expensive lidar technology on the camera-only vision system that Tesla currently uses. For companies like Waymo attempting a centralized vehicle ownership model, can the company continue to meet the high capital requirements while solving the intricacies of computer vision algorithms and the less discussed but very difficult details of l operating a route – call service?

Despite significant progress being made in mapping cities, deploying fleets for consumer trials, and gaining approval from local regulators, AVs will continue to advance primarily through trial and error. It takes a lot of labor and capital to successfully deploy to any city or district and slowly expand the geo-fenced areas of operations. This is a key reason why BloombergNEF’s long-term outlook for road transportation shows that fully autonomous vehicles will take until 2035 to top 1% of all car sales.

After 2035, sales are expected to increase rapidly to over 10% of all car sales by 2040. Due to heavy vehicle use, AVs will account for over 15% of the total electricity demand of the fleet of electric passenger vehicles. This rapid growth in electricity demand will have implications for the charging infrastructure sector.

The Waymo San Francisco depot has one of the largest charging facilities in the city, with 19 DC charging stations delivering over 2 megawatts of total charge, enough to power 1,000 to 2,000 homes. After inspection, the cars charge at just 30kW, presumably to limit battery degradation. In 15 years, we do not see the deposits look quite like this one. To reduce labor costs, chargers will either have robotic arms to plug in cables or wireless charging stations recessed into the floor. The latter is something Jaguar is already testing, working with Momentum Dynamics and regular taxis in Oslo.

To reduce infrastructure costs, AVs will likely use a specific network of depots and community charging stations. A shared charger is a cheap charger. A strategically placed distributed network can also reduce battery size since vehicles will be able to charge throughout the day.

Changing charging requirements for the rapidly growing global AV fleet in the mid-2030s compared to the mainstream electric passenger fleet also indicates the threat of redundancy to other network charging infrastructure that may not have been installed only a few years earlier. This underscores the importance of sites, especially those installed in cities around the 2030s, needing to be AV-friendly and chargers needing to be able to be adapted to meet specific vehicle charging needs.

Much has been said in recent years about the slow pace of AV adoption, but the impression after visiting the Waymo depot is that real progress is being made. The path to widespread adoption remains unclear, but with more and more companies opening their self-driving vehicle programs to the public, you may soon experience a ride.

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