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Waymo’s secret city for testing driverless cars looks eerily familiar

It’s based on real Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix streets

Inside the mini city Waymo built to test its trickiest scenarios
Waymo

It’s no secret that autonomous vehicle companies are constructing urban-scale environments to test their tech in real-life conditions. There’s Mcity, for example, the faux Michigan town used by many Detroit automakers. But no one has gotten a peek inside industry leader Waymo’s simulated city for its driverless cars—until now.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal got an exclusive look at Castle, Waymo’s top-secret testing facility. It’s far from Waymo’s operations center at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, occupying a former military base in California’s Central Valley. And that’s a good thing. Even though Waymo prides itself on how many real-world miles their self-driving vehicles have logged—about 3 million!—there’s a limit to how much experience their cars can actually get driving around in traffic.

What Waymo needed was a place to take the trickiest real-world scenarios that its vehicles are experiencing on the streets and build them out to scale so it can run its cars through them over and over. And over and over and over:

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day. Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

According to Steph Villegas, a former “driver” for the program who now runs the operation at Castle, designing the city meant copying actual streets and neighborhoods in a way that’s almost eerily familiar. “We made conscious decisions in designing to make residential streets, expressway-style streets, cul-de-sacs, parking lots, things like that, so we’d have a representative concentration of features that we could drive around.”

Driving around with Villegas, Madrigal says he experiences deja vu: “I keep catching glimpses of roads I feel like I’ve traveled.”

Castle also includes quirky regionalized transportation infrastructure like a double-roundabout Waymo’s vehicles discovered in Austin. “We initially had a single-lane roundabout and were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got it. We’ve got it covered,’” says Villegas. “And then we encountered a multi-lane and were like, ‘Horse of a different color! Thanks, Texas.’ So, we installed this bad boy.”

With so many concerns about the way autonomous vehicles will respond to sudden movements by pedestrians or navigate safely around bike lanes, it is fascinating to see how Waymo is intently focused on the way streets are used by people, not just cars. (And it’s not surprising, given the company’s focus on safety and families.)

The toughest challenge for the vehicles so far, according to Villegas? Recreating suburban business districts where streets are lined with parallel parking. “People are coming out of storefronts or a park,” she says. “People are walking between cars, maybe crossing the street carrying stuff.”

Perhaps the coolest detail of Castle is a shed filled with props to help train the vehicles: “dummies, cones, fake plants, kids’ toys, skateboards, tricycles, dolls, balls, doodads.” You can almost imagine the engineers pedaling around on kids’ bikes.

Read the entire piece at The Atlantic.