Ship Grad Gives New Meaning to 'Driving Manual'

While most kids discover adventures in the pages of books, Will Davis ’13 said his imagination unfolded on a map. “I have a fond memory of looking at my mom’s atlas in the back of her car from a very young age,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated with maps and their extensive history through time. I enjoy using maps as a way to experience places and people in which I will likely never encounter—maps always tell a story.”

Will Davis ‘13 (opposite page) develops maps for Waymo, a company that creates self-driving technology.

Will Davis ‘13 (opposite page) develops maps for Waymo, a company that creates self-driving technology.

Davis graduated with a degree in geography, specializing in GIS (graphic information systems), a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, manage, and present geographic data. Originally from Chadds Ford, Davis moved to the West Coast after graduation, where he has held positions with Apple and Nextdoor.com, navigating his career down the right road to design maps for self-driving vehicles.

His curiosity, combined with the wisdom and guidance from SU’s Geography/Earth Science Department, set him up for the role to write the stories of the road.

Since April 2016, Davis has spent his days designing intricate maps for an independent self-driving technology company, previously known as the Google self-driving car project, called Waymo.

It’s a great feeling knowing the car is operating safely because of your hard work.
— Will Davis
will davis 2.jpg

Waymo is manufacturing two of their own projects: the Lexus RX450h, offering a manual driving option with normal driving controls, such as a steering wheel and pedals, and the prototype car, which has no steering wheel or pedals, operating completely off of preprogrammed software and sensors. The driverless Lexus looks like a normal Lexus SUV but with a black cone-shaped sensor on top that detects pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, roadwork, and more from a distance of up to two football fields away in every direction. The prototype, which is futuristic in design, offers the same features but lacks the option to switch over to manual control.

Davis hitched a ride in the driverless Lexus, describing it as exciting at first. However, the longer he “drove” the vehicle, the more it became the same as any other car ride. “It’s a very strange experience, because at first you are really excited to be in the car, and then you start driving, and—as you may or may not expect—the car drives as if a human is behind the wheel, that is to say, very normally. The idea of a self-driving car normalizes quickly and the experience becomes, unexpectedly, very boring,” he said. “It’s exactly like any other car ride you have been in, except that the car is driving with no human interaction.”

Davis creates the highly detailed maps that are programmed into the software to ensure the driverless car performs at the highest safety level. He sets up every detail of how the car will drive and must make the car aware of proper speed limits, traffic lights, bike lanes, and parking restrictions. The car must understand its surroundings in order to operate alongside manual vehicles.

He designs the maps using the internal resources provided by Google such as Google Maps and Google Street View. He combines those references with mapping software specifically designed to handle and map self-driving car data.

Once Davis finishes a section of the map, it is almost immediately implemented into the project. “It’s a great feeling knowing the car is operating safely because of your hard work.”

The future of driving is in for a huge change within the next decade. Introducing the self-driving car will significantly reduce driving fatalities.

According to Waymo.com, human error is the reason for 94 percent of driving accidents, resulting in more than 30,000 traffic-related accidents in the US alone. Driverless cars already have more than 2 million miles of testing, conducted primarily on city streets, equivalent to over 300 years of human driving experience.

Davis sees self-driving cars as the ultimate leap to becoming a shared economy—one where we share or rent vehicles as opposed to everyone purchasing their own. Creating fewer cars for the road will decrease carbon dioxide emissions and traffic. It also could reduce parking areas and increase green space. “If you could rent or order a car as a service, and pay to use it as you need, you may end up saving a significant amount of money over a lifetime.”

The idea of the future is that drivers will not need to pay as much attention to the road. They might have the option to safely tend to a crying toddler or even take a nap on long drives. Most importantly, driverless cars could provide a safe and independent mode of transportation for those, for example, who have a physical disability or are blind.

The abilities of self-driving cars are growing exponentially. More driverless cars are expected on the road in the next few years depending on how easily people embrace the idea of a computer behind the wheel, according to Davis. He believes that in five years, you can expect major car companies to begin selling self-driving cars to consumers.