“Fully self-driving cars are here”: Waymo becomes first company to remove human drivers, announces driverless Uber rival

In a landmark moment for self-driving cars, Google’s driverless car company Waymo has announced that it has begun testing the car without a human behind the wheel on public roads.

The move, which was announced by John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, today at Web Summit, makes Waymo the first company to do so.

“We have some exciting news to share with the world right here at Web Summit,” he said. “Right now we’re going to show you a video of Waymo’s fully self-driving cars on public roads, test driving without anyone in the driver’s seat.

“Fully self-driving cars are here. It’s not happening in 2020, it’s happening today.”

The announcement was accompanied by the unveiling of the planned Waymo Driverless Service, an Uber rival that will see a fleet of Waymo driverless vehicles operating, entirely without human involvement, as a taxi service across the world at an unspecified time in the future.

Discussing the video embedded above, Krafcik stressed that the vehicles we’re operating completely autonomously, meaning Waymo has achieved the holy grail of true level 5 self-driving cars.

“As you can see, there’s no one in the front seats,” he said. “Waymo team members chose three separate destinations, pressed the start button in the car and the vehicle did all the rest, choosing what route to take, when to turn, when to yield and everything in between. That’s full, true autonomy.”

In addition, he was keen to stress that such trials are now going to be commonplace in Phoenix, Arizona, where the company is testing its vehicles.

“This wasn’t just a one-time ride or just a demo, what you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo, and for the history of this technology,” said Krafcik. “We’re test-driving these fully self-driving vehicles in a part of the Phoenix metro area in Arizona. Over time we’ll expand to cover the entire Phoenix region, an area much larger than Greater London, and our ultimate goal is to bring our fully self-driving technology to more cities in the US and around the world.”

It won’t just be Waymo employees that get to experience the vehicles, either.

“In the next few months members of the public will get to experience these fully self-driving rides too,” he said. “The first passengers will be people who are part of our early rider program, which is a public trial already underway in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Since the beginning of this year our early riders have been using our fleet with a test driver at the wheel to go to work, school, soccer practice and more. Soon they’ll be able to make these trips in a fully self-driving car with Waymo as their chauffer.”

Krafcik at Web Summit, with one of the Waymo driverless fleet. Image courtesy of Web Summit

As part of his talk at Web Summit, Krafcik also unveiled the company’s plans for the Waymo Driverless Service, an autonomous alternative to Uber that currently has no fixed timeline, but will eventually be rolled out around the world.

“We’re now working on making this commercial service available to the public,” he said. “People get to use our fleet of on-demand vehicles to do anything from commute to work, get home from a night out, run errands, whatever they like.

“Getting access will be easy as using an app: you just tap a button and Waymo will come to get you, and take you where you want to go. The vehicles will be fully self-driving, so you have your own personal space where you just sit back and relax.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.