How Alphabet's Waymo Will Teach its Self-Driving Cars About Snow

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Waymo said on Thursday that it will try to teach its self-driving cars about snow by taking part of its fleet to a place with notoriously fierce winter weather: Michigan.

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Waymo, the Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) subsidiary formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, said it's expanding its test fleet to the metropolitan Detroit area specifically to gain experience with driving in snowy and icy conditions.

What Waymo's CEO said about the plan

Waymo's CEO, John Krafcik, is no stranger to Michigan: He lived in the state for 14 years while working for Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) as an engineer earlier in his career. In a post on Waymo's blog, he noted that snow can create many different conditions on roadways, from packed powder to an icy glaze -- and all of them present challenges to human drivers and the systems that seek to emulate them:

For human drivers, the mix of winter conditions can affect how well you can see, and the way your vehicle handles the road. The same is true for self-driving cars. At Waymo, our ultimate goal is for our fully self-driving cars to operate safely and smoothly in all kinds of environments.

Krafcik said the testing will help Waymo understand how its sensors perform in cold weather and in the presence of snow and ice. It will also help Waymo's system acquire more experience driving in varied winter conditions, when roads are slippery and things like lane markings and signs may be covered in snow or hard to see.

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Waymo's test vehicles will operate with a human driver behind the wheel as a backup to the self-driving system, should they be needed. 

Waymo's test fleet and footprint are expanding

Most of Waymo's current test vehicles are specially modified versions of Chrysler's Pacifica Hybrid minivan. The unique minivans were created in an ongoing collaboration between Waymo and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE: FCAU) that began last year. FCA delivered an initial batch of 100 of the special minivans in December; Waymo ordered 500 more in April.

Waymo opened a development center in Novi, Michigan in May, locating part of its team near FCA and other potential auto-industry partners. That facility will serve as the local home base for the winter-weather testing effort, Krafcik said. (Novi is about 20 miles northwest of downtown Detroit.)

Waymo has been testing its latest vehicles in California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington, mostly places that aren't known for severe winters. The company has accumulated some limited winter-weather experience in Nevada and California near Lake Tahoe over the last several years, it said, but testing in Metro Detroit will pose plenty of new challenges for its automated vehicles.

Will this winter testing give Waymo a huge advantage?

Although there are some good reasons to believe that Waymo's technology is at or near the head of the self-driving pack, this testing plan isn't really one of them.

In fact, Waymo is almost certainly joining a crowd: There are likely to be several companies testing prototype self-driving systems on the roads of southeast Michigan this winter, including General Motors, Delphi Automotive, and others.

Two winters ago, Ford claimed to be the first in the industry to test fully autonomous vehicles in snowy winter weather. Waymo cheerfully disputed that claim, saying it has conducted cold-weather testing of its system since 2012, but the takeaway here is that this latest effort is arguably more about helping Waymo improve its system than it is about setting Waymo apart.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. John Rosevear owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Ford. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.