Self-driving vehicles have become a common sight on roads in a small number of cities across the country.
But for the vast majority of the country, seeing an autonomous vehicle — much less riding inside one — remains a futuristic-sounding mystery.
To mark its 5 millionth mile on public roads this month, Waymo — formerly Google’s self-driving car program — has released an “immersive 360-degree video” that offers some indication of what it looks and feels like to ride in one of the company’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Before showing the viewer a self-driving vehicle from the inside, the video walks viewers through one of Waymo minivan’s use of high-resolution cameras, radar and lidar, a device that uses laser beams to map the world around it.
“Take a look around,” a calming narrator states. “You’re now riding in a fully self-driving car. Some things might immediately stand out — the fact that there’s no one in the drivers seat, no one turning the wheel and the screens, which show you what the car is seeing and the route it’s taking.”
“But you might also notice that the ride feels a lot like being driven in a regular car, and that’s the way it should feel,” the narrator adds. “All this technology which allows Waymo to see, identify, predict and plan should make an extraordinary ride feel completely ordinary.”
Waymo’s autonomous minivans, part of a 600-vehicle fleet, have begun ferrying the public around portions of Phoenix without a backup driver since November. The company says its testing is “picking up speed.” The company recently announced plans to order thousands more Pacificas as the company’s testing ground expands in Phoenix and into other cities.
But getting people on board with these self-driving car initiatives may pose a challenge for Waymo and other automakers.
The Waymo video arrives about a month after the release of an American Automobile Association study that found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, down from 78 percent a year earlier.
Male drivers and millennials are most trusting of autonomous technology, with only half reporting fear of riding inside a fully autonomous car, according to AAA, which has begun urging automakers to educate consumers about autonomous transportation. Despite the fact that more than 90 percent of crashes are the result of human error, most drivers consider their driving skills better than average and are leery of handing over control of their vehicle to a machine, the study noted.
“Americans are starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of self-driving vehicles,” AAA Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations Director Greg Brannon said. “Compared to just a year ago, AAA found that 20 million more U.S. drivers would trust a self-driving vehicle to take them for a ride.”
But the idea of giving up control of your safety to a machine can be hard to swallow, experts say. Riders tend to relax inside Waymo’s self-driving vehicle once they realize they can follow the vehicle’s live field of view on passenger screens in the back seat, according to Waymo. The newly released 360 video, the company claims, allows someone to approximate that experience as closely as possible.
The video was created using “sensor and software data from real city streets,” Waymo said.
Check out the video below: