Google’s self-driving car spinoff, Waymo, will be the first company to pull engineers from the drivers’ seats of its autonomous vehicles on public roads.
John Krafcik, Waymo CEO and a former Ford Motor Co. executive, announced the move Tuesday at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. The driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans will roam the greater Phoenix area, where Waymo began offering autonomous ride-hailing service a year ago.
“What you’re seeing now marks the start of a new phase for Waymo, and for the history of this technology,” Krafcik wrote in a speech prepared for the summit. “Fully self-driving cars are here.”
The Silicon Valley company, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., is quickening the race to bring the first fully autonomous vehicle to market. Waymo’s move comes as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and other global automakers continue to seek partners and build autonomous development. By moving safety drivers from the front seat to the back, Waymo is edging ahead and threatening to beat Detroit at its century-old game.
“Waymo, which has been thoroughly testing its Level 4 self-driving technology for years, is demonstrating an early and unexpected confidence in its autonomous hardware and software,” Michael Harley, automotive analyst for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement. “There are countless companies taking small steps as they chase similar objectives, but Waymo is making massive leaps to ensure it’s the leader.”
Waymo’s leading position in the race for a fully-autonomous car on public roadways is a vindication of sorts for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne. He is betting on Silicon Valley’s tech prowess, and calculating that those companies will move faster on self-driving technology than traditional automakers.
The Silicon Valley giant is pulling ahead by logging real-world self-driving miles at an impressive rate. Waymo has been testing autonomous vehicle technology since it was a mere Google project in 2009, racking up some 3.5 million autonomous miles on public roads in 20 cities. Waymo also is putting 10 million miles on its software daily via simulated “rare and unusual cases,” the company wrote in its blog post.
Waymo’s fully self-driving minivans will be available to the public via a mobile app in the next few months. Waymo is currently running a pilot program with volunteer riders in a Phoenix suburb. It plans to cover the entire Phoenix region, eventually adding more cities to its completely driverless lineup.
“I don’t think I am surprised that Waymo is the first one ready to do this,” Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant Research, said in an interview. “Next will be GM. They’ve also been making a lot of progress. We’ll see something in months, not years, from GM.”
GM’s autonomous vehicles are currently on the road in San Francisco and Phoenix, and the automaker is planning to enter New York City by early next year. In a blog post earlier this fall, Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt expressed confidence that GM would have “the world’s first mass-producible car designed to operate without a driver.”
GM acquired San Francisco-based Cruise Automation last year to help it with autonomous vehicle software development. The Cruise team has grown from about 40 people in California to more than 100, and GM plans to hire 1,100 over the next five years.
Ford is pushing to bring self-driving car to market by 2021, and is testing autonomous technology on Fusion models in Dearborn and Pittsburgh. The Blue Oval partnered with Argo AI less than a year ago to build the virtual driver systems for its autonomous vehicles. Argo acquired LiDAR company Princeton Lightwave last month to speed up the development of those cars.
Waymo’s announcement likely will increase pressure on lawmakers in Washington to finalize new federal rules regarding self-driving vehicle testing, pending in Congress. Automakers and technology companies like Waymo would each be allowed to sell thousands of self-driving cars under a bill that has been approved by the House and is still under consideration in the Senate.
The switch to self-driving vehicles is heralded by automakers and tech companies from Silicon Valley to Detroit as a safety measure on public roads — autonomous cars can never get drunk, distracted or drowsy. More than 37,400 people died on U.S. roadways in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, including about 3,400 distracted driving-related deaths.
“Our goal is to build the world’s most experienced driver who can take anyone, or anything, safely from Point A to Point B,” Krafcik said.
Advocates like John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director, aren’t sold on the safety of Waymo’s self-driving technology, however. He is calling for Waymo to release more information about its autonomous cars’ driving records in Arizona.
Waymo “CEO John Krafcik is simply asking us to trust him as he uses public roads as a private laboratory,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “That’s simply not good enough.”
Ian Thibodeau and Keith Laing contributed to this report.