Google was the first major tech company to get into self-driving vehicles, revealing its initial prototype in the spring of 2014. Now, two and a half years later, the company is ready turn its research into a business.
At a press event in the Bay Area today, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) pulled the curtain back on Waymo, the new company within Alphabet that will focus on self-driving technologies.
“We can imagine this in ride-sharing, in transportation, trucking, logistics, even personal-use vehicles and licensing with automakers, public transport, and solving the last mile,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said.
It’s a rare graduation from Google’s experimental X division (formerly known as Google X) to a fully independent unit, and a signal that Google’s leaders are looking for self-driving cars to start bringing in revenue. More evidence: Google is partnering with Fiat Chrysler to launch a “semi-autonomous” Chrysler minivan for a ride-hailing service by the end of 2017.
“Since the early days of the project, our work has been shaped by feedback we’ve heard from the communities that will most benefit from self-driving cars,” Krafcik wrote in a post on Medium. “Our next step as Waymo will be to let people use our vehicles to do everyday things like run errands, commute to work, or get safely home after a night on the town.”
Around the time last year that ride-hailing startups like Uber and Lyft began working with manufacturers like Ford and GM, Google brought in Krafcik, a former Hyundai exec, to begin readying its own self-driving efforts for commercial use.
Though Google took an early lead in self-driving research efforts, the Silicon Valley giant is widely viewed as having lost momentum over the past year. A number of employees have defected to launch their own startups (Nuro.ai), join rivals (Uber), or launch startups that were acquired by rivals (Otto, which was bought by Uber).
Uber appears to be Google’s chief competition. The company recently launched a small fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh; VICE News took one for a spin back in September when they launched, and the technology appeared to be functional: We survived the ride.
Though Google is late to the party, Seaport Global automotive analyst Michael Ward said it won’t really matter because Google has a unique advantage with a crucial component of autonomous driving technology: mapping.
“Google has expertise in mapping, and that’s a critical part of the equation in increased safety,” Ward said in a phone interview. “Mapping works very well with radar and lidar [sensors] and other functions. It helps cars become more safe, and it’s a step in the right direction for Google and the industry.”
Old-school car manufacturers are getting wise to the game that Uber and Google are playing; a coalition of German car companies last year spent $2.7 billion to acquire Nokia’s Here mapping division.
“A car today has 100 million lines of computer code; it compares with a [jet] fighter,” Ward said. “The industry is pretty far advanced already. It’s not like it’s an industry that’s standing still.”