Michigan boasts three core strengths when it comes to its ambitions to market itself as a rigorous autonomous-vehicle proving ground. First, a grimy, gray malaise blankets the state for two-thirds of the year and remains capable of producing frost and snow any time between October and early June, giving developers a true chance to test in all-weather conditions. Second, roads in the state have been torn asunder by both weather and , creating potholes the size of moon craters that challenge any vehicle, autonomous or not. And third, the state has some of the when it comes to testing.
That’s an appealing trifecta for a company like Waymo, which said this week that it will expand its testing to Michigan, chiefly to take advantage of the state’s lousy conditions.
“Having weathered 14 winters in Michigan, I can tell you firsthand that snow there comes in many different forms: light fall, dense flakes, powdery dust, and even slanted sleet,” Waymo chief executive officer John Krafcik . “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.”
This isn’t Waymo’s first attempt at winter testing. Engineers have been testing the performance of sensors and the vehicle itself in cold-weather conditions since 2012, when the company was still known as Google’s self-driving-car project. That testing has most recently taken place around Lake Tahoe in Nevada and California.
Nor is it Waymo’s first foray into Michigan. The company opened a 53,000-square-foot development center in Novi, a Detroit suburb, in May 2016 to be closer to its auto-industry partners, and it’s where much work has been done in outfitting Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans with Waymo’s proprietary self-driving systems.
The new testing will be based out of this facility, though the exact number of cars in the Michigan test fleet may vary over the course of the winter. Operations are expected to begin next week, a company spokesperson said, and work starts with a mapping of the region, followed by the testing itself. Not a moment too soon—temperatures in the area dipped below freezing for the first time this fall on Thursday morning and are expected to hover in the low 30s again this weekend.
“This type of testing will give us the opportunity to assess the way our sensors perform in wet, cold conditions,” Krafcik wrote. “And it will also build on the advanced driving skills we’ve developed over the last eight years by teaching our cars how to handle things like skidding on icy, unplowed roads.”
Michigan will be the sixth state in which Waymo conducts testing, joining Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Washington.