Waymo is trying to reinvent the act of driving.

Behind miles of black-clad chain-linked fencing in a remote area of central California, the self-driving car company, started as part of Google, has taken over 91 acres of the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base near the town of Atwater. It’s surrounded by strip malls, tract housing, and farms with fruit trees and vegetables. Waymo calls this place, one of the key locations in the tech industry’s quest to perfect automated vehicles, “Castle.”

Consumer Reports was invited along for a press tour of the highly restricted facility. Our phones were confiscated before we were allowed inside the test cars. Reporters were instructed to take no photos, no tweets were allowed, and we all agreed not to reveal the Castle’s GPS coordinates. Here’s what we saw. 

A Mock Community

Within sight of the air control tower that’s now part of a civilian airport, there’s an unmarked gate. Passing through, there’s an artificial community that’s helping Waymo to program the latest generation of automated vehicles. It’s a world of cul-de-sacs, roundabouts, and hidden driveways. There’s a railroad crossing, but no trains. There aren’t a lot of buildings, but there are Waymo employees, nicknamed “fauxes” (pronounced “foxes”), who ride bikes, jaywalk, and drive cars erratically in a bid to get the self-driving software to understand how to drive in the real world.

John Krafcik, the auto-industry veteran who is now Waymo’s chief executive officer, says the company’s goal is to skip the stages of partial automation to get to a fully self-driving vehicle. In the wonky world of self-driving cars, this means Waymo is aiming for Society of Automotive Engineers Level 4, skipping SAE Levels 1-3, which is where a lot of the cars with advanced safety systems on the market reside today.

Technologies that assist drivers rather than completely take over control of a vehicle present a conundrum, Krafcik says.

“The better you make it, the more likely the human behind the wheel is to check out,” he says.

Waymo Castle van
Photo: Waymo

When Google was thinking about offering advanced safety systems short of full self-driving in 2011 and 2012 , it saw its own employee test drivers quickly stop paying attention, even after being warned they needed to stay alert to back up the car’s computer. They were texting, charging electronic devices, or applying makeup. One driver was sound asleep at 55 mph. That’s when Google shut down that program and turned its focus to fully self-driving cars.

“At Level 4 mode, you can imagine a completely empty car, coming to wherever you are,” Krafcik says. “Then open the door, hop in the back seat, and it will take you, relaxed and happy, connected to WiFi, wherever you want to go.” 

Waymo Castle van
Photo: Waymo

Inside the Test Cars

Near the spot where the test drives begin, Waymo has parked four test vehicles, each outfitted with contraptions that look like a rooftop siren to house the radar and laser sensors the cars use to see.

There’s a Toyota Prius, a Lexus RX 450h, the most current Chrysler Pacifica minivan, and Google’s only self-designed and manufactured vehicle, the tiny Firefly. One of the cars has its lidar unit spinning with a distinct whirring noise that sounds like mechanical locusts, like something out of a 1950s science-fiction movie. (Lidar uses laser beams to bounce off surrounding objects to detect nearby physical objects and create a three-dimensional map, like a bat uses echolocation.)

Inside the Pacifica, no one is sitting at the wheel. In the back, passengers see a panel with four buttons: start, pull over, lock or unlock the doors, or talk to Waymo representatives. The car does everything else.

The Pacifica pulls up to an intersection, pauses to virtually look both ways, and turns left into a lane. It accelerates to the next intersection and stops at a stop sign. The throttle and braking feel smooth, like an experienced person is driving, not jerky like a novice teenager behind the wheel. At the stop sign, a fast-moving Faux on a bicycle passes by and the minivan waits. The cyclist appears on the passenger screen as a moving white disc long before he enters our peripheral vision. A regular car driven by a Faux pulls up, and the Waymo Pacifica waits for it to stop before it takes off again.  

Waymo Castle van yielding for bicyclist and pedestrian
Photo: Waymo

Next come the more complicated scenarios. A Faux with car trouble has his hood open and is walking around a disabled vehicle holding his head, talking on a cell phone. The Waymo test car pauses, assesses nearby traffic, and pulls around. There’s a long stretch of high-speed road with an on-ramp. The Waymo test car merges into simulated traffic seamlessly. There’s an intersection with a blinking red light. There’s a roundabout with Fauxes circling around and around. Again and again, the driverless Pacifica handles the situations with no problem.

“This car gets better and better,” says Charlee Poineau, one of Waymo’s young test drivers who works at Castle. The company hasn’t declared the cars ready for wide use on public roads; state and federal regulators aren’t there yet, either. But Poineau says she would be comfortable riding in a Waymo-programmed Pacifica in real-world traffic.

“I think this car is capable in all situations,” she says.

To get to this level of driving refinement, Waymo has been testing cars for eight years. The company racks up more than 3.5 million miles of driving on public roads a year. It uses computer simulations, nicknamed Carcraft (after the popular World of Warcraft video game), to amplify what it has seen on public roads and test slight variations of those scenarios. Those programs are tracking 25,000 virtual vehicles logging 10 million miles a day, Waymo officials say.

While there has been rapid progress in recent years in solving the puzzle for writing code to handle most normal driving situations, experts say solving the remaining challenges could still take years. Full self-driving in all situations could still be a decade or more away.

Waymo’s programmers have built highly detailed three-dimensional maps of Phoenix and Austin, two of the cities where their automated cars are deployed now with test drivers acting as backups to the computers. The strange things that humans do, like darting between parked cars or chasing ducks with brooms, get fed into the program.

So, too, does the performance of the test cars at Castle.

Stephanie Villegas, head of Waymo’s structured testing division, is the designer of the Castle facility. She’s been working on self-driving cars since 2011 after working at other Google jobs. The move to Castle came when the Self-Driving Car Project outgrew its initial proving ground in the parking lot of the Shoreline Amphitheater, near the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. There, the test drivers would have to pack up their props and vehicles whenever buses for visiting bands and their roadies showed up.

“In the early days, we were scrappy,” Villegas said. “We were just a couple of drivers.” 

Waymo Castle van
Photo: Waymo

Learning From Intentional Interruptions

There are now more than 20,000 controlled driving situations, called “structured tests,” going on at Castle. In a demonstration, a group of four Fauxes pretend to be a sloppy moving crew. They’re unpacking boxes from the back of a truck. They spill boxes out onto the road in front of a Waymo test car. Villegas calls this an FOD test, for foreign objects or debris.

Another car is approaching from the opposite direction. The Waymo car stops short of the boxes, waits for the other car to pass, and drives into the other lane, and around the boxes. The test is repeated two more times, with the Fauxes doing minor variations on the timing of the box-spilling. The Waymo car’s event data recorder and cameras are logging everything. The data will be analyzed by programmers and eventually fed into the Carcraft program.

Villegas won’t say how many times Waymo will repeat the procedure. She just says they’ll run the tests over and over again, until the car learns what it needs to.

Unlike its competitors in the self-driving-car space, such as Tesla, General Motors, or BMW, Waymo says it’s not going to build cars. Krafcik, the CEO, says the company is building a better "driver," and the goal is to get this driver on public roads as soon as possible. Waymo will start small, in structured environments where company officials are the most confident the technology will work, Krafcik says.

That’s likely to mean focusing on things like ride-hailing and ride-sharing, Krafcik says. The company is also looking at software for self-driving trucks, and it’s working with cities that want options for residents to complete the last miles of their commutes, making the connection from home to public transit stations. There’s also the possibility that auto companies, like Waymo testing partner Fiat Chrysler, will license its self-driving-car software.

“Our intention is to go fully driverless and let the public access this technology on public roads,” Krafcik says. “We’re really close.”

Exactly how close, he wouldn’t say.