Why Is Waymo Ahead?

Alphabet’s self-driving division was the first out of the gate in 2010 and has retained pole position ever since.

Tweddlr
The Startup
3 min readJul 26, 2020

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If there’s one statement the entire self-driving industry can agree on (save perhaps Elon Musk), it’s that Waymo is leading the race.

Alphabet’s subsidiary, which began life as one of Google X’s first secretive projects, has always held a commanding lead over rivals.

In the days before automotive interest, Google’s advantage stemmed from being the only major company working on an autonomous vehicle. Before Google, almost all funding and projects were provided by the U.S. military.

Google scooped up a few of the engineers who had worked on projects for the military, specifically those involved in DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge. The search giant also bolstered its roster with the acquihire of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Labroatory’s VueTool team, which went on to build Street View.

Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the company’s first self-driving vehicle, with CEO at the time Eric Schmidt alongside

That meant even prior to Google officially announcing the project in 2010, it already had the best talent in one place. Google’s self-driving alumni include Kitty Hawk CEO, Sebastian Thrun (who led the self-driving team), Argo.AI founder, Bryan Salesky, Nuro co-founders, Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson, Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, and Aurora founder, Chris Urmson.

Google also, through the use of Maps and Street View, had a head-start on things like computer vision and mapping, which other startups would be forced to license or do without.

While Google’s early moves provided the secure framework for Waymo, the lead would have diminished had there not been continued investment and improvement. Court documents published in the Levandowski trade secrets case revealed that Google spent $1.1 billion on the self-driving program between 2009 and 2015; before the surge in autonomous vehicle interest.

Since 2015, almost all automakers have launched autonomous programs (Tesla, Hyundai, Toyota) or invested heavily into related startups (General Motors,, Delphi, Volkswagen and Ford). Uber and Lyft both see self-driving as fundamental to attaining profitability. Apple is working on a secretive project and Amazon made its presence known recently with the acquisition of Zoox.

Even with all this activity, Waymo remains ahead according to most metrics. It has the most autonomous miles driven, most simulated miles, lowest disengagement percentage according to California’s DMV, and a higher valuation than Cruise Automation and Uber’s self-driving unit.

And, according to several experts, Waymo’s technology is still at least a year ahead of the rest of the competition. “Waymo has developed a phenomenal system and is ahead of the pack,” said managing director at Boston Consulting Group, Brian Collie to Bloomberg.

Waymo showing off its technology in a busy suburb near a school

Offline, Waymo has managed to stay ahead of the competition in miles driven by being fairly unprovocative. It hasn’t been involved in a fatal accident and has worked amicably with regulatory authorities in California and Arizona.

This is of significant importance, because Waymo is one of the few operators in California allowed to test vehicles without a driver, and is the only operator (to my knowledge) allowed to run an autonomous taxi service in Arizona.

Waymo has also spent no time on its own hardware, alleviating the cost of manufacturing and testing its own vehicle alongside the software.

Without as much regulatory red-tape on its testing, Waymo’s miles may be more valuable than other operators, which may be unable to test vehicles in urban areas or without constant supervision.

Online, Waymo is backed by Alphabet’s massive data centre and artificial intelligence platforms. It can simulate hundreds of millions of miles, testing the car’s AI on complicated edge cases, without any real-world accident and PR nightmare.

It is also working with Alphabet’s DeepMind to make the car’s training more effective and efficient.

As we have seen with the recent $2.25 billion (and additional $750 million two months later), Waymo is not at risk of running out of capital any-time soon either.

What remains to be seen is if this lead, which Google/Alphabet/Waymo has held for over a decade, will mean anything once autonomous vehicles are commercially available.

I’ll be writing a follow-up to this soon, to speculate where Waymo goes from here.

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Tweddlr
The Startup

Analyst at Business of Apps. Previously RT Insights, Digital Trends, ReadWrite. Leeds and Lincoln Uni alumni