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Waymo's self-driving vans learn the struggles of parking

Waymo van learns how to navigate parking lots. (Photo: Waymo)
A Waymo van learns how to navigate parking lots. Photo: Waymo

Waymo's self-driving vans are learning to share the human driver hatred of shopping mall parking lots.

Why it matters: Parking lots are one of the most difficult environments for a self-driving car to master: unruly vehicles, darting pedestrians and the occasional runaway shopping cart contribute to a Wild West atmosphere.

What's happening: Waymo, a self-driving development company, is teaching its automated test vehicles how to navigate this chaotic environment by practicing on 91 acres at the former Castle Air Force base near Merced, Calif., Popular Science reports.

The state of play ... Engineers can dial up the complexity in a variety of ways:

  • They can control cars reversing out of parking spots, traveling the wrong way down a lane or cutting across empty spaces.
  • They can add people carrying large packages — which affects how the car's perception system sees them — and cause them to dart in front of the car's path.
  • They taught Waymo's vans to be cautious around dumpsters, which can obscure a shopping cart rolling out into traffic.

The bottom line: Just like on roadways, Waymo must map out the parking lot, including details like the orientation of angled parking stalls for cues about the direction of traffic.

  • Parking lots are uniquely challenging, Waymo's Stephanie Villegas tells Popular Science.
  • “They don’t really have standardized rules for how people should and can move about within them. They’re just kind of lawless."

Go deeper: Companies get innovative to fill in urban transportation gaps