In 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a challenge: $1 million to the first team of engineers to develop an autonomous vehicle to race across the Mojave Desert.
Though the prize went unclaimed, the challenge publicized an idea that once belonged to science fiction — the driverless car. It caught the attention of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who convened a team of engineers to buy cars from dealership lots and retrofit them with off-the-shelf sensors.
But making the cars drive on their own wasn’t a simple task. At the time, the technology was new, leaving designers for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project without a lot of direction. YooJung Ahn, who joined the project in 2012, says it was a challenge to know where to start.
“We didn’t know what to do,” says Ahn, now the head of design for Waymo, the autonomous car company that was built from Google’s original project. “We were trying to figure it out, cutting holes and adding things.”
But over the past five years, advances in autonomous technology have made consecutive leaps. In 2015, Google completed its first driverless trip on a public road. Three years later, Waymo launched its Waymo One ride-hailing service to ferry Arizona passengers in self-driving minivans manned by humans. Last summer, the cars began picking up customers all on their own.
Still, the environmental