SAN FRANCISCO – Google is spinning out its self-driving car project into a new company called Waymo, signaling its commitment to become a serious player in the automotive market even as it scales back some of the lofty plans it initially set out with.
Waymo, which stands for “Way forward in mobility,” has the mission of making “it safe and easy for people and things to move around,” executives said at a press conference announcing the news in San Francisco on Tuesday.
“What you’re feeling from the Waymo team is confidence that we’re close to bringing this to a lot of people,” CEO John Krafcik said at the event.
“We’re getting close. We’re getting ready. And we want to tell the world about it,” he added.
But the first version of Waymo’s self-driving technology to become available won’t be quite the revolution that Google once promised. While Google has been testing a fleet of pod-shaped autonomous vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, executives acknowledged on Tuesday that, for the time being at least, cars will continue to be piloted by humans, with Waymo’s self-driving technology included as a feature.
“We’re not a car company”
The spin out of the self-driving car unit, which is currently housed in X, another Alphabet company, has been expected for some time. But the move comes as Google has faced some setbacks in bringing its vision of a steering-wheel free car to market and as it faces increases competition from Uber, the ride-hailing company which is also developing self-driving cars, as well as other automakers.
“We are a self-driving technology company,” Krafcik said. “We’ve made it pretty clear we are not a car company…. We’re not in the business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers. We’re a self-driving technology company.”
Waymo has a partnership with Fiat Chrysler, which is incorporating self-driving software and sensors into its Pacifica minivans. It’s not clear whether those vehicles will be available for sale soon, or simply as test vehicles as the companies perfect the technology.
Waymo executives did provide details about the new company’s business model, such as whether it currently generates any revenue from partnerships or other sources.
“We will continue to have access to infrastructure and resources Alphabet provides, but in this new world as Waymo we also have this feeling like we are a venture backed startup,” Krafcik said.
The Google division completed in 2015 its first fully self-driving ride on public roads in Austin, putting a blind passenger in the front seat of a steering-wheel-less car. Krafcik reiterated that the company’s goal is still creating a Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicle in which passengers can sit back and completely relinquish control of the car.
The steering wheel stays
But he noted that the “fully driverless” system the company builds may come with a steering wheel and brake pedals for now. Due to regulations, it is a requirement to have those systems for now, Krafcik said, although it’s still wanting to make it’s idealized version of the steering-wheel-less car that completed the ride in Austin.
“As we’ve demonstrated with Steve’s first ride is our goal to get there without those controls,” Krafick said. “We dont think the human should be asked to monitor the self-driving system. As it turns out… it is a requirement to have those controls.”
Regulatory issues, as well as unanswered questions about insurance and liability, are considered some of the major obstacles to a future of self-driving robo-cars.
While the technology for fully-autonomous vehicles is still being perfected, it is now considered much more feasible than it once was.
When Google began working on self-driving cars more than six years ago, the idea was widely viewed as more of a science project than an initiative that could become mainstream and reshape the auto market. Since then however, virtually all of the world’s major automakers have ramped up self-driving car efforts and are currently testing prototype vehicles with various levels of autonomous capabilities.
The company is now prioritizing making the driving system more comfortable and smoother for passengers in the self-driving car, said engineer Dmitri Dolgov. There’s also still work to be done with mapping — to expand where the cars can operate — and the conditions it can drive in, like heavy rain, Dolgov added.
Yet, it’s “exciting” for the engineers on the project to know what’s left to do now that the self-driving car has proven that it can drive on public roads.
“We can imagine our self-driving technology being used in a lot of different areas, in the ride sharing business, trucking, logistics, even personally used vehicles and licensing with automakers,” Krafcik said.