Self-driving cars frequently have trouble with poor weather, but Waymo thinks it can overcome these limitations by using its autonomous taxis as weather gauges. The company has revealed that its latest car sensor arrays are creating real-time weather maps to improve ride hailing services in Phoenix and San Francisco. The vehicles measure the raindrops on windows to detect the intensity of conditions like fog or rain.
The technology gives Waymo a much finer-grained view of conditions than it gets from airport weather stations, radar and satellites. It can track the coastal fog as it rolls inland, or drizzle that radar would normally miss. While that’s not as important in a dry locale like Phoenix, it can be vital in San Francisco and other cities where the weather can vary wildly between neighborhoods.
There are a number of practical advantages to gathering this data, as you might guess. Waymo is using the info to improve its Driver AI’s ability to handle rough weather, including more realistic simulations. The company also believes it can better understand the limits of its cars and set higher requirements for new self-driving systems. The tech also helps Waymo One better serve ride hailing passengers at a given time and place, and gives Waymo Via trucking customers more accurate delivery updates.
The current weather maps have their limitations. They may help in a warm city like San Francisco, where condensation and puddles are usually the greatest problems, but they won’t be as useful for navigating snowy climates where merely seeing the lanes can be a challenge. There’s also the question of whether or not it’s ideal to have cars measure the very conditions that hamper their driving. This isn’t necessarily the safest approach.
This could still go a long way toward making Waymo’s driverless service more practical, though. Right now, companies like Waymo and Cruise aren’t allowed to operate in heavy rain or fog using their California permits — the weather monitoring could help these robotaxi firms serve customers looking for dry rides home.