Google is spinning out its self-driving car unit as a separate company called Waymo, the company announced today. The name is derived from its mission of finding “a new way forward in mobility.”
“We’re now an independent company within the Alphabet umbrella,” Waymo CEO Jon Krafcik told an audience at a press event in California today. Krafcik also noted that they had the first fully driverless ride on public roads in Austin last year, using a car with no steering wheels and no pedals in “everyday traffic” on real city streets.
This first ride put Steve Mahan, a friend of Waymo principal engineer Nathaniel Fairfield who also happens to be legally blind, in the self-driving car solo for its debut fully driverless ride on public roads. Mahan had ridden in Google test vehicles previously, but always accompanied and escorted by police. This time, he rode with neither, and the car negotiated four-way stops, pedestrians, narrow streets and more in public in Austin.
Recent changes to Google’s self-driving business unit include the appointment of ex-Hyundai North America executive Krafcik as the project’s CEO. That, combined with the later addition of ex-Airbnb and TripAdvisor exec Shaun Stewart later this year suggested a move away from pure research and tech among the top ranks at the self-driving unit, and towards experienced business executives with a history of building commercially viable companies.
“We’ve talked a lot about the two million miles we’ve driven on public roads,” Krafcik said at the event. “Now we’ve driven another million miles on public roads. We don’t talk as much about miles we put on in simulation. We’ve done over one billion miles in simuliatio[…] And we have taken over 10,000 trips with Googlers and guests in places like Mountain View, Austin and Phoenix.”
Google X – and now Waymo – has accomplished a lot in all that time spend driving and testing, but Waymo’s head of self-driving tech Dmitri Dolgov says that there’s still a lot left to work on, including building out better maps, making the ride smoother overall, and improving navigation in inclement conditions like heavy, driving rain and snow.
As for where the business is headed under the new Waymo brand, Krafcik spoke of a range of potential opportunities.
“We can imagine this [technology] in ridesharing, in transportation, trucking, logistics even personal use vehicles and licensing with automakers, public transport and solving the last mile” he said. “Self driving technology is awesome in all these categories.”
Krafcik also emphasized that the new company is focused on technology, not necessarily cars. This fits with reports that the business will be looking to partner more with vehicle makers, rather than building its own cars.
“We are a self driving technology company,” he said pointedly. “We’ve been really clear that we’re not a car co. although there’s sometimes some confusion on that point. We’re not in the business of making better cars. We’re in the business of making better drivers.”
Krafcik said that Waymo is currently in the “build phase” of putting next generation sensor load outs in the Chrysler Pacifica, which it announced earlier this year it would be using in a 100-car pilot project in partnership with Fiat Chrysler. They’re currently readying these vehicles for road tests, he said.
Uber is also working with carmakers in deploying its own self-driving vehicles for its ride-hailing service, including Ford and Volvo. Other automakers, like Volkswagen and GM, have opted to build or acquire their own self-driving tech and on-demand mobility service offerings.
Bloomberg reported Tuesday that in fact, Alphabet’s new independent autonomous car company will be teaming up with Chrysler for a ride-sharing service deployment, which would see semi-self-driving Pacifica vans hit the roads to trey passengers as early as the end of 2017.
As mentioned, Google previously announced a plan to build 100 prototype autonomous vehicles based on the Pacifica platform in partnership with Fiat Chrysler, but this new plan will involve a much broader scope and higher vehicle requirement. Fiat also plans to unveil an all-electric Pacifica at this year’s upcoming CES show in Las Vegas, and that could be a key ingredient in its tie-up with Google, since EV fleets are much more practical option for the future of autonomous on-demand services.
As an independent company under the Alphabet umbrella, Waymo will likely be less insulated from scrutiny regarding its progress and performance as a business, so its next steps in terms of partnership and sales or licensing model will be very interesting to watch.