Montana woman leads Google X project

MSU grad designs self-driving car

Jaime Waydo’s wish is that her two young sons never know what it’s like to drive a car.

As an engineer, she’s working hard to make that wish come true.


Waydo heads up the systems engineering team on the self-driving car project for X, formerly known as Google X. She and her team are responsible for designing the vehicle including details such as deciding what types of sensors to use, what technologies need to be developed for it, test driving the car and certifying that it’s road -- and people -- ready.


jamie waydo google x


Waydo, a 2000 graduate of the Montana State University College of Engineering and former head engineer of the Mars rover “Curiosity” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shared her work as part of Astronomy and Aerospace Day held this week at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies.


Researchers have been working on the technology for decades, with efforts that included No Hands Across America, a 1995 experiment in which researchers from Carnegie Mellon traveled 3,000 miles in a minivan that drove itself most of the way. But it has not been until recently that researchers have made significant progress on handling the complexities of urban traffic.


The technology is important, Waydo said, because worldwide 1.2 million people die in traffic-related accidents every year, nearly all caused by human error.


“In the United States alone, that’s the equivalent of an airliner dropping out of the sky five days a week,” she said. “That’s something we would not tolerate in our society, but because it’s happening one at a time in places distributed across the country, we allow this to continue.”


There are a host of reasons for these numbers, Waydo said. Drivers are becoming increasingly distracted – she once saw someone playing the trumpet while driving. Traffic is becoming heavier and commutes are growing longer. New roads aren’t being built fast enough to keep up with the number of drivers on the road.


And there’s a personal reason for Waydo’s urgency in seeing the project through before her sons, now 6 and 2, reach driving age -- teenagers account for more than a third of all car accidents in the United States.


The engineers built the Google prototype car from the ground up, with a dome on the top that houses lasers and cameras that can “see” 360 degrees around the car and 200 yards away, as well as scan the area “many, many times a second,” Waydo said. Radar on the car can determine the speed of cars, cyclists, pedestrians and other moving objects.


Waydo said the cars are first tested on a closed course where they undergo “hundreds to thousands” of safety and systems tests in a variety of situations. Then, self-driving car maps are created and uploaded to the car’s software. Each map takes months to build and takes into account traffic flow, road lines, construction zones, medians, traffic signals, crosswalks, road topography and other details. The software assigns pedestrians, vehicles and other moving and non-moving objects a specific shape and color so the car can identify them.


On the road, the car uses this data to predict what’s going to happen and updates those predictions many times per second, Waydo said.


“We’ve driven more than 1.4 million miles of autonomous driving and we find interesting scenarios about once a week,” she said. “We see weird things.”


The car has successfully navigated unusual occurrences including a woman in a wheelchair holding a broom and chasing ducks in the road, youths riding skateboards on their stomachs on city streets and a cyclist who ran a red light through a busy intersection that the test driver never saw coming.


Currently, there are about 75 test cars on the road, each with at least one test driver along for the ride trained to take over anytime they are unsure of a situation.


So far, self-driving cars have covered around 2 million miles of road on a combination of freeways and surface streets. The focus is now on urban areas, with the cars in Mountain View and San Francisco, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington and Phoenix, Arizona.


“Imagine a self-driving car dropping you off and going somewhere else to park and then picking you up when you call it,” Waydo said. “Imagine giving people who are unable to drive their mobility back.”


The company is aiming to start a new pilot program in the next year or so that would allow people to use the technology and provide feedback, Waydo said.


“There are 3,000 people dying in accidents every day, and the more safe drivers we get on the road, the more we can get that number down,” she said. “The technology can seem scary, but not doing anything about that number is even scarier.”


This is Waydo’s sixth year speaking at Astronomy and Aerospace Day, a popular outreach event of MSU and the Museum of the Rockies. She says she keeps coming back to encourage students to follow their dreams and open doors for them, when possible.


“I feel like I got a special opportunity to go to NASA and work with JPL for a lot of years and I want to make sure that opportunity is afforded to other students at this university,” she said.


She also wants to build awareness that MSU is a top-notch university.


“MSU gave me a great foundation in engineering education, but more than that, there was always this feeling that your dreams are achievable and within reach and not to take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said.


“The professors at MSU really try to unlock whatever it is each student is striving to attain,” she continued. “When you have professors that have that kind of touch and that kind of care for their students, then the students don’t grasp that there can be ceilings on their careers. Because of this, I’ve always thought that anything I want to do, I can do.”


Astronomy and Aerospace Day is sponsored by MSU Extended University, the MSU Library, Montana Space Grant Consortium, Clancy School Science Program, the Regional Library of Medicine, and the Space Public Outreach Team.

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