Google has been an early leader in the self-driving car business, with millions of miles logged in its vehicles and an ambitious plan to create vehicles without steering wheels or pedal controls. Now, the company has announced a new direction: Google is moving its self-driving car unit out of Google X, the company’s skunkworks division, and establishing it as an independent subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent corporation. Its new name? Waymo.
he new CEO of Waymo, Jon Krafcik, has previously headed Hyundai Motors America. Scuttlebutt suggests that Alphabet wants to shift Waymo from researching the self-driving car problem to a partnership model in which the company allies with other automotive manufacturers to create self-driving cars. While this is a significant shift in how the unit has operated to date, it’s not a surprising one. If you want to work in the self-driving car business as a technology company, it makes much more sense to partner with established auto manufacturers and work together than to try and branch out into vehicle manufacturing yourself. Waymo will reportedly partner with Fiat Chrysler to launch a self-driving car fleet by the end of this year and hopes to have them in testing in the near future.
“We’ve talked a lot about the two million miles we’ve driven on public roads,” Krafcik told the audience at Google’s press event to announce Waymo. “Now we’ve driven another million miles on public roads… And we have taken over 10,000 trips with Googlers and guests in places like Mountain View, Austin and Phoenix.”
Google sees a wide range of uses for its self-driving technology, including ride sharing, trucking, and personal vehicle use. It’s not clear what will happen to the company’s vehicle prototypes, which lacked both steering wheels and pedals. Krafcik has stated that Waymo remains fully committed to developing Level 4 and 5 self-driving technology. Level 4 requires computer control that can handle the vehicle in all but a handful of environments, like severe weather, while Level 5 vehicles can pilot themselves under any conditions or weather and can reach any destination where it is legal to drive. Krafcik, however, also forcefully made the point that Waymo “is not a car company, there’s been some confusion on that point. We’re not in business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers.”
Google had originally planned to commercialize its self-driving car technology by 2020, but allying with manufacturers rather than doing the manufacturing itself may help it beat that goal. The company did not announce any major new partnerships or concrete plans for the market beyond the spin-off and focus shifts discussed above. A number of manufacturers and companies are now tackling the self-driving market, from Intel, Delphi, and Mobileye to Tesla, Volvo, and Nvidia.