“Every car company has a different design language,” says YooJung Ahn, head of design for Alphabet’s Waymo autonomous car division, which aims to turn just about any conventional car into a self-driving one.
Ahn’s challenge has been to enable pilot tests for Waymo Driver, its autonomous technology product, on different vehicles as it rolls into cities from Phoenix to San Francisco. In addition to the software challenge, Ahn’s team had to design a sophisticated hardware add-on that can be deployed on semi-trucks and sedans alike, and still look good. That required a pared-down approach. “When you have a simpler design, it’s easier to make it adaptable,” Ahn says.
Packed with 40 cameras, radars, and lidar sensors, Waymo Driver sits on top of a car like a three-tiered hat, riding on roof racks that might otherwise hold a cargo box or a kayak. Bulging camera mounts are integrated into the body panels at each of the car’s corners. For trucks, the hardware sits on the face of the cab like a thick eyebrow, while two sensor-filled whiskers pop out from the cab’s nose-like grill. All this hardware continuously scans the chaos of the street, while Waymo’s software, informed by 20 million miles of real-world autonomous driving experience, and another 20 billion in simulation, enables the vehicle to navigate through it. It’s the Transportation winner in Fast Company‘s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards
Unprotected left turns remain an engineering challenge, particularly across multiple lanes and in fast moving traffic, but the company says it’s improving the system’s “confidence and smoothness” in these situations. Pioneering the emerging concept of autonomous driving is a work in progress. “We are developing a piece of technology and a product and a service and a user experience all at the same time,” Ahn says, “which is not typical.”
Designing the hardware for this technology requires a light touch that de-emphasizes just how complicated it all is. “The technology part of it is very complex, but people don’t like complexity when they interact with any kind of product,” Ahn says. But as a practical matter, the design team couldn’t avoid complexity completely. They had to address the inherent conflict of creating a piece of hardware based on software and sensors that are constantly evolving. Ahn says the Waymo Driver is a modular hardware system that makes it possible to remove older sensors and devices when newer and better ones are ready to hit the road. “Swapability is very important,” she says. “You’re not going to replace a platform every year.”
This article is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world.