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John Krafcik and Waymo: The “Boring” Company That Leads the Race in the US

This article begins my six-article series covering three major autonomous vehicle companies in the US. All of this material is taken directly from my book, The Future is Autonomous: The US and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car. I can think of no better place to start than discussing arguably the top global company in the industry in Waymo.

In this article, I discuss the origins of Waymo as the Google Self-Driving Car program operating out of Google’s secretive “moonshot” X labs. For an in-depth analysis of how Google began to develop autonomous vehicles, relying on veterans from the DARPA Grand Challenges, I would recommend Driven by Alex Davies. However, this article provides a background into the beginning of one of the top companies in the field!

Waymo is not Google…Anymore: The History of Google’s Push for Autonomous Vehicles

“First thing I want to mention, we are not Google. We are not a car company. We’re also not a self-driving car company. Rather, we are a technology company, and we’re building the world’s most experienced driver and we call it the Waymo driver and it’s our mission to make it simple and easy for people and things to move around the world.”

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo

This statement by John Krafcik was made at the 2019 IAA Frankfurt Auto Show. Krafcik, the CEO of Waymo, has also emphasized this point in other interviews. Many people’s impression of Waymo is that it is a subsidiary, self-driving car company of Google. To understand what John Krafcik is referring to when he says Waymo is a technology company, it is necessary to examine his statement one step at a time. What does he mean when he says Waymo is not Google? How is Waymo not a self-driving car company, or even a car company?

This article seeks to emphasize the importance of experience in developing autonomous vehicles. This is true for the vehicles themselves through years of testing the automated driving system’s deep learning algorithms. But it is also true for the CEOs in charge of these companies. John Krafcik was a veteran in the automotive industry for decades before he became CEO of Waymo. He has used his knowledge and expertise to make a technological and business plan that he hopes will ensure Waymo will be the leading autonomous vehicle company in the US and the company all others are judged against. This is true in China and the US. Waymo leads the US in its effort to win the race for autonomous vehicles.

As mentioned in my aeticle on dissecting the “brain” of the autonomous vehicle, the DARPA Grand Challenges from 2004 to 2007 featured teams from research laboratories, companies, and universities. These teams attempted to drive a vehicle with no driver around a track to win a monetary prize. Google took note. The initial stage of autonomous vehicle development was conducted at Google’s highly secretive X lab. The work was led by Sebastian Thrum, a Stanford University professor who was the founder of the autonomous vehicle. He and his Stanford University research team won two million dollars in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge for driving one hundred thirty-two miles in the desert without a driver.

Google faced a problem in this early stage of needing to justify being a pioneer in the field of autonomous vehicles. Google needed to reassure its employees and investors that a project requiring billions of dollars and thousands of skilled computer engineers, automotive engineers, financial and marketing analysts, litigation and compliance lawyers, and public relations would be profitable. The project would also not be profitable for the foreseeable future. Google was the ideal place to explore new technologies, however, because that is the goal of its secretive X labs.

The behind-the-scenes work of developing the algorithms for the deep learning system was done at the X lab. Six Toyota Priuses and one Audi TT were equipped with GPS, LiDAR sensors, radar, cameras, and the Google self-driving computer system. The cars began to drive through Mountain View, California. For its first in a long series of milestones, these Google cars drove one hundred forty thousand miles by 2010, only one year after the project began.

The project continued in silence for several years until April 2014. Google announced in a statement that its tech could now handle thousands of urban driving simulations. These simulations had previously troubled the project’s computer engineers. The company’s silence can be attributed to the fact that there was little news to report, other than early milestones by their relatively small fleet of vehicles.

This is especially true when you consider Waymo recently passed twenty million miles of driving autonomously on public roads. Part of the reason for the silence could also be due to computer engineers coding algorithms for the significantly more difficult driving conditions in dense urban areas. In cities, there are pedestrians who jaywalk, distracted and drunk drivers who drive through stop signs or red lights, and people riding bicycles who stray out of bike lanes and onto the road. The work to code the car to make it safe when driving in all driving conditions is an arduous and lengthy process.

Wired ran a story on the enormous Google X lab, which was later renamed X labs in an article. Astrol Teller, the captain of moonshots, described the building as akin to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. The facility itself, a former mall, is gigantic. Robots drive around the halls, stopping to sort through recycle baskets, and autonomous vehicles drive around outside. Stratospheric balloons hang in the rafters of the lobby and broadcast internet signals to remote areas that hang in the rafters of the lobby. The lab’s goal is to invent “moonshots” — to try to solve humanity’s greatest problems by inventing radical new technologies. This is similar to what I mentioned in the introduction.

Not content to rely on a stable of Toyota Priuses, which were later changed to Lexus 450h SUVs, the workers at the X lab wanted to make their own vehicle to test and eventually market for their next “moonshot.” During Google’s Code Conference in May 2014, it unveiled a fully functioning prototype of an autonomous vehicle called the “Firefly.” The small, bubble-shaped car had no steering wheel and no brake or gas pedals. The car was turned on by pushing a button. The car had custom sensors and computers to perform all of the necessary driving functions. The Firefly had the appearance of a space pod and could only be described as “cute.” When Google debuted this vehicle at the conference, they told everyone they would cap the car’s maximum speed at twenty-five mph and it would only be used as a test vehicle.

Because of these restrictions, Google had no intention of commercializing the Firefly or for it travelling far from the X labs. Also, according to Technical Program Manager Brian Jee, “Those (the Fireflies) were actually just level four.” He then clarified this remark, saying, “Sure, they didn’t have a steering wheel or pedals, but they were limited to their mapped area…they were geo-fenced to a specific area.” These “moonshot” Fireflies were “cute,” but Google did not want to be known as a gimmicky company with quirky products. It was time to move forward with their autonomous vehicle project.

Many of the original executives and some of the core team of engineers and other staff members at Google’s self-driving car project were part of the original teams from the DARPA Grand Challenges. However, those people began to leave the Google team, such as former leader of the autonomous vehicle team Sebastian Thrun, Carnegie Melon professor Chris Urmson whose team won the 2007 Urban Challenge, and Anthony Levandowski, who built the first autonomous motorcycle. The remaining team of engineers continued to work on coding the automated driving system and running road tests. However, the company needed to move on from the Firefly (which it finally did officially on July 11, 2017), and also to move beyond the engineers from the infancy of the autonomous vehicle industry.

In September 2015, Google hired former top Hyundai and Ford executive John Krafcik as CEO of the autonomous vehicle project. An established and well-respected businessman, Krafcik would give the program credibility with major auto manufacturers in Detroit and around the world. Krafcik’s decades of experience in the auto industry would also be vital as the company moved from the X labs to towns and cities across the country. With his experience as a CEO of Hyundai and top executive at Ford, Krafcik also had the experience to eventually market and commercialize the project’s autonomous vehicles.

Not long after Krafcik was hired as the CEO, in October 2015 Google offered the first driverless ride on public roads in Austin, Texas. The autonomous vehicle had no test driver and transported Steve Mahan safely to his destination. Mahan is legally blind and the former CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center. This trip is significant because it is the first trip taken with a human passenger without a backup driver. It also gave the project positive publicity. Google’s self-driving car project did more than create futuristic cars. It had the potential to make personal transportation possible for a lot of people like me who currently lack the freedom of mobility an autonomous vehicle could provide.

Less than one year later Google also hired Shawn Stewart, a former executive from Airbnb. Stewart specialized in building and upscaling businesses. Hiring Stewart would allow Google to develop a business strategy for its eventual push to commercialize autonomous vehicles. Airbnb represents a new and innovative approach to renting homes. This provides travelers with more travel accommodation options. This book discusses many different business tactics companies will need to use to offset the added cost of producing autonomous vehicles. Hiring Stewart, a man who helped design an innovative and highly successful business model for Airbnb, put Google in a position to design a business strategy for commercializing autonomous vehicles when the technology and legislation would allow them to do so.

Finally, it was time for Google to move out of the laboratory producing “moonshot” projects, to begin testing its vehicles on public roads throughout the country. On December 20, 2016, the project was moved to a completely separate company under Alphabet, the parent company of Google. It was renamed Waymo, or “a new way forward in mobility.”

Referring back to Krafcik’s quote at the beginning of this chapter, Waymo is not Google. However, Waymo did benefit from the technology in the automated driving system created by the original Google self-driving car project. Waymo also continues to benefit from the funding and research of Google employees today. Therefore. this statement is really only partly accurate. As far as Krafcik’s second and third points in the quote, Waymo is also not a self-driving car company, or even a car company after it disbanded its Firefly project.

The next article will describe the history of John Krafcik and how he began to focus on turning Waymo into a technology company. The technology in an automated driving system of any autonomous vehicle company is, after all, the most important part in making sure the vehicle drives safely on public roads and highways.

If you are interested in learning more about top companies in the US and China, the political dilemma of creating laws governing autonomous vehicles, or new business models to incorporate AVs into the auto industry, read my book The Future is Autonomous!

Here is the amazon link to buy my book: https://www.amazon.com/Future-Autonomous-China-Develop-Driverless-ebook/dp/B08PVRL38J

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