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Waymo Creates Virtual Testing World for Autonomous Vehicles

by Sam Chase
Testing self-driving cars is hard.

First, there is the initial investment required to develop a baseline technology. Then, there's the challenge of putting that technology into a physical car, whether it be a pre-existing model or a brand new prototype.

That's only the beginning.

Only certain areas of the country allow AV testing on their roads, and they require extensive permits and permissions.

All of these roadblocks are time-consuming, but they are also necessary to ensure that autonomous vehicles are not deployed prematurely, and that all of the proper precautionary measures are in place. Imagine if an issue like Samsung's exploding phones happened with self-driving cars.

However, according to an illuminating feature in The Atlantic, we now know that Waymo has figured out a new way to test its vehicles to make sure they're safe: by operating them in a virtual world.

Until now, the project had been kept entirely under wraps -- as author Alexis C. Madrigal describes. The software used is called Carcraft -- a play on the massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. The "secret base," complete with real-world road architecture, is located in the Central Valley of California and is named Castle.

"Waymo has never unveiled this system before," writes Madrigal. "The miles they drive on regular roads show them areas where they need extra practice. They carve the spaces they need into the earth at Castle, which lets them run thousands of different scenarios in situ. And in both kinds of real-world testing, their cars capture enough data to create full digital recreations at any point in the future. In that virtual space, they can unhitch from the limits of real life and create thousands of variations of any single scenario, and then run a digital car through all of them. As the driving software improves, it's downloaded back into the physical cars, which can drive more and harder miles, and the loop begins again."

A key word there is "thousands."

To track a single scenario thousands of times on a physical road would take an unfeasible amount of time, and adding variables to those situations would multiply that already unreasonable amount of time by an order of magnitude.

By using computer simulations, engineers can test self-driving cars over and over, providing an invaluable element of repetition--and the clarity that comes with it -- to their operations. It also helps save money on physical prototypes, meaning Waymo can reinvest that money back into software development until they're ready to produce hardware at scale.

Perhaps most critical is that neither the tests in the physical world nor the ones that take place virtually exist in a vacuum.

Instead, both inform one another in every sense of the word, and create a feedback loop of learning that is accelerating Waymo's technological development at an incredible rate.

If other AV developers are doing the same thing, they may be eager to pull back the curtain soon for fear of giving investors the impression that they've fallen behind. If other AV developers aren't doing the same thing, they should probably start today.


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