The Alphabet-owned autonomous car company Waymo recently started to experiment with driverless cars, opening the service to actual clients for the first time.
Catch up about Waymo
The company started its early driver program in 2017. All vehicles were able to drive by themselves, but there was always a driver in front, just in case something went wrong with the system and a humans’ hand were needed for the passenger’s safety.
We need to be careful about the terminology here. Automated driving and self-driving car are not the same thing as driverless cars. Waymo has driver-free cars, which mean that none of them have a driver seated in front. The first tests for the project started earlier this year but had to be halted because of the pandemic.
If we’ve been talking about Alphabet and its project on autonomous cars, it seems that 2020 is the year where they transform their research lab into a potentially very profitable venture. Indeed, the company has racked up over $3 billion in external financing, scaled its class 8 truck testing in the south west of the country and launched their new Waymo via pilots – their latest truck services. Of course, the size, scope and revenue of the venture are nowhere near their other successful little tech company – a.k.a. Google – but if the next years are successful, the weights in profits might change.
The way the system works is rather simple. Based on Google Maps and sensors, the car drives itself following a designated itinerary. Then, if it encounters an issue that the system cannot interpret, such as a roadblock, an external operator takes over to go around the obstacle with the help of 8 cameras installed on the vehicle. This solution would only be taken when the AI is really helpless. Nevertheless, cars will be making their own driving decisions – or at least most of them – through a large computer system and a sophisticated artificial intelligence.
Just last week, the company launched its first driverless ride-hail service. The tests will be run in a 130km squared area around metro Phoenix in Arizona. While we have no details on how people will access the service, resources said the company had a waiting list where they selected their early clients, which will be welcomed with their families and friends.
The company possesses around 600 cars, 400 of which are in the designated test area, but we are still unsure about the number of cars that will operate at launch. The company also said they would relaunch additional cars with trained vehicle operators to augment their capacity before the end of the year. They’re also in the process of adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and rear passenger cabin for the cars where they do have pilots, as safety hygiene measures.
Where is the competition?
It looks like Waymo is definitely a step ahead of everyone. Indeed, in the self-driving – or driver-free – car industry, most competitors are still in the pre-revenue phase. It’s a nice way to say they’re still far from making money.
Amazon acquired Zoox earlier this year, which is an autonomous vehicles manufacturer; Uber is seriously considering a full strategy reset by making everything self-driven; Argo is working with investors such as Ford and VW on finding solutions for smart cities; Aurora is testing more than ever and Nuro and GM have decided to build autonomous vehicles from the ground up. On the truck side, Trucking startup Tusimple already has designs for an autonomous freight network and Tesla… Well, Tesla is just doing its Elon Musk business.
Elon Musk’s opinion
Speaking of Tesla and its founder, we must also mention Elon Musk’s reaction to the Waymo launch. And it’s quite negative, to say the least. Tesla’s founder is heavily criticizing Waymo’s strong reliance on Maps: when in an unknown or not up to date area, the system might stop functioning. He even calls the system “fragile” and argues that Tesla’s model is way more solid and thought-through: “Our new system is capable of driving in locations we never seen before.” He’s referring to Tesla’s “full self-driving” option, which comes at about $8’000 extra. But even his system does not yet live up to its name.
"Waymo is impressive, but a highly specialized solution. The Tesla approach is a general solution. The latest build is capable of zero intervention drives. Will release limited beta in a few weeks," tweeted Musk recently, a strong statement as we have not seen their full solution functioning entirely correctly. He also said that Waymo was giving “a false sense of victory being close”, where the battle for autonomous vehicles is anything but won. Good arguments, or is he just mad to have been beaten to market?
General situation about autonomous vehicles and next steps
Right before the pandemic, Waymo’s driver-free vehicles provided for 5-10% of all the rides in the designated zone. What they want to do now is expand to new areas, as they are now beginning testing phases in over 25 countries.
There remains a strong uncertainty about autonomous vehicles. In the case of corona, having taxis without drivers might be great in terms of hygiene, but would you trust such a vehicle to bring your kids to school? Would you trust it as much – or maybe more, or less – than your own driving skills?
Whether we choose to trust it or not, the whole autonomous driving concept is way behind schedule. We are now saying that Waymo is almost there, but the same exact statement was made already back in 2017. However, John Krafcik, Waymo’s CEO, remains confident: “In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless,” Krafcik said, although he did not provide an exact timeline. “We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand.”
Is it just another volatile hype or is this the first step to actual autonomous mobility? Is Elon Musk right to critique the business? In any case, a lot remains to be done before a national, or even international rollout. We’ll need to see which company succeeds in taking the biggest market shares.
Waymo Won, in Morning Brew
Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticizes Waymo’s autonomous tech on Twitter, in Fox Business