ANALYSIS: Malek Murison looks at what the future may hold for Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving division, in the wake of damaged public confidence in autonomous or semi-automated technologies.
Internet of Business says
In March, two highly publicised fatalities damaged public trust in autonomous or semi-automated vehicles. The driver of a Tesla SUV died when his car hit a concrete barrier on Highway 101 in California. Just a week earlier, Uber and Toyota suspended testing of their driverless fleets after an Uber Volvo struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Nvidia also stopped testing its driverless technologies following the incident.
Both vehicles were operating under software control at the time of the accidents, and in both cases should have avoided the collisions, according to preliminary reports. Arizona state authorities later ordered Uber’s test vehicles off public roads while investigations into the accident continued.
• Read our recently updated report on the Tesla accident here.
But another company, Alphabet-owned Waymo, was undeterred by the incidents and kept its vehicles running, as did some other players in the sector. Waymo’s cars are still ferrying passengers in the Arizona suburb of Chandler, for example, not far from where the Uber accident took place. And in March, the company announced that it would begin a pilot logistics programme with driverless trucks on the roads in Georgia.
Waymo pushes forward
In part, that’s because a core principle at Waymo is the belief that autonomous and driver-assisted vehicles represent a safer and more sustainable future, in spite of any problems that may occur in testing the technologies in the short term. The global statistics for human drivers make grim reading: 1.2 million deaths on the road every year, with 90 percent of them caused by driver error.
In that context, removing test vehicles from circulation might be seen as an admission of fear or insecurity about the technology, and keeping them on the road as a sign of confidence, rather than defiance.
Waymo certainly believes that its system is safer than Uber’s. Referring to the accident in Arizona, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said, “We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one.”
Just days after the Uber collision, Waymo announced a strategic partnership with Jaguar Land Rover, in a move that will see the two companies join forces to create a fleet of premium, self-driving electric vehicles.
These could be part of the Waymo ride-sharing fleet that is expected to be rolled out in Phoenix, Arizona, later this year.
But despite all this, the path to mainstream adoption of driverless or semi-autonomous technologies has undoubtedly become more complicated since March, with federal investigations underway into both fatal accidents. Until the causes are revealed, question marks will remain over the Uber and Tesla platforms, which some analysts have suggested may lack sufficient LiDAR capabilities – although this has yet to be determined as a cause of either accident.
Whatever the results of these investigations, it doesn’t appear as if Waymo is slowing down anytime soon. On top of its plans to launch an autonomous, on-demand ride service before the year is out, Waymo is keen to apply its technology in alternative markets. Among them are personal transport, public transport, and logistics, according to Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat during a recent earnings call.
Goldman Sachs has estimated that the global on-demand taxi market will be worth $285 billion in revenues by 2030, but the money to be made in logistics, public transport, and autonomous personal vehicles could dwarf that figure in the years ahead.
Japanese carmaker Honda could be at the centre of these plans.
Waymo and Honda: autonomous logistics
Waymo’s talks with Honda began back in 2016, and are expected to end with a significant deal involving autonomous logistics technology, according to sources close to both companies.
In its March announcement, Waymo said that it would begin roadtesting autonomous trucks by carrying freight between Google’s data centres in Atlanta, Georgia. But since then, CEO Krafcik has hinted that something altogether new is on the horizon, as well.
The agreement with Honda is expected to move away from the “traditional car driven on roads,” as Krafcik put it. These and other recent comments suggest that Waymo is ready to move into uncharted territory by co-developing a completely new type of vehicle with Honda, perhaps one without a steering wheel or driver controls.
If true, this would be a very different dynamic from the company’s partnerships with Jaguar Land Rover and Fiat Chrysler, for example. Indeed, such a development could signal the real beginnings of the autonomous transport sector: no longer cars or trucks in the traditional sense of a vehicle with a cab and/or driver controls, but a new mode of transport for the smart, connected age.
Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.