Technology

As it struggles to roll out its robot taxi service on a large scale, Waymo changes direction

A page turns at Waymo. John Krafcik, CEO of this Alphabet subsidiary which develops autonomous driving technology, is leaving the management. However, he does not cut all ties since he will always officiate there as an advisor. He explains in a letter published on April 2, 2021 that he is replaced by Tekedra Mowakana (current COO) and Dmitri Dolgov (current CTO), who become co-CEOs.

They are neither from the automotive industry, unlike John Krafcik, but have a more technological profile. The sign that Waymo wants to change course after the failure of the industrial phase of the Krafcik era? It consisted of implementing Waymo’s technology on cars from partner manufacturers to launch a full-scale commercial service. However, there is no trace of the tens of thousands of vehicles ordered with great fanfare in 2018. The only city where its service is open is Phoenix, Arizona.

Partnerships with manufacturers

John Krafcik, a former executive in the auto industry, took the helm of Google’s autonomous vehicle project in September 2015. Google CEO Larry Page then believed the technology was ready for commercialization. This is what motivated this recruitment in order to industrialize the technology, recalls Ars Technica. However, if John Krafcik has done a lot during his presidency, he has not been able to meet these expectations since the technology, as advanced as it is, is in fact not yet developed.

The newly appointed man has entered into negotiations with the automakers. He bought around 100 Pacifica MPVs from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). An agreement then widened to 500 minivans, then to “thousands”. In early 2018, Waymo announced that it would once again expand its fleet with an agreement allowing it to order up to 20,000 100% electric I-Paces from the English luxury brand Jaguar Land Rover. The goal is to equip these vehicles with its autonomous driving platform over the next two years.

John Krafcik has also forged partnerships with Volvo Cars, Daimler Trucks and Renault-Nissan. Beyond self-driving cars, the subsidiary has decided to turn to logistics and freight transport with its Waymo Via entity. Under his chairmanship, recalls John Krafcik, the Waymo Driver autonomous driving platform has covered tens of millions of kilometers on open roads through 25 American states and more than 20 billion kilometers during simulations.

First commercial deployments
Waymo launched its Waymo One robot taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, in December 2018 with security operators on board vehicles. First reserved for a few “early riders” – Google employees or their relatives – this service was then opened to the general public in October 2020. The security operators being gradually withdrawn from October 2019. A second service of robot taxi should soon be deployed in the streets of San Francisco, where Waymo One is currently being tested with some volunteers who work for the company.

At the same time, John Krafcik looked for other business opportunities at Waymo Driver. The Alphabet subsidiary tested its autonomous driving platform on trucks, notably in Texas and New Mexico. It must be said that road transport is experiencing a real economic boom in the United States. Demand is high, especially in these states, and the lack of drivers is growing. In addition, the deployment of autonomous driving technology that would be used on expressways and highways seems simpler than a robot taxi service deployed in urban centers.

Costly R&D and no financial gains

Unlike other manufacturers (such as Tesla or Intel Mobileye), which have chosen to gradually deploy these technologies by initially marketing advanced driving assistance systems, Waymo has exclusively focused exclusively on the deployment of vehicles. autonomous. But the launch of his service, which he said was already close years ago, took much longer than expected. At the same time, R&D remained extremely expensive. So much so that Waymo recently raised $ 3.25 billion from outside investors in order to continue its development. A sign that Google is getting impatient?

Waymo’s fleet is currently made up of around 600 autonomous vehicles, according to information from Google obtained by Ars Technica, most of which circulate on the Phoenix side. A figure far from the 82,000 vehicles ordered three years ago. Is Waymo rolling out its service gradually for security reasons? Do autonomous vehicles require remote human supervision, making the service unprofitable even without a security operator present in the car? Is this the time it takes for Waymo to build the necessary infrastructure to support thousands of vehicles spread across different cities? Or is autonomous driving technology still not sufficiently developed?

It is now up to the new co-CEOs, Tekedra Mowakana and Dmitri Dolgov, to build the necessary infrastructure (and to sufficiently advance the technology) to support the commercial deployments of their control system. But above all to take Waymo to the next level by opening more markets and generating income.

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