Google spins off self-driving car project into Waymo

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Google parent Alphabet Inc. is spinning off the tech giant’s self-driving car project into a new company called Waymo.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik, formerly CEO of Google Self-Driving Car Project, on Tuesday said the new independent company will remain part of the Alphabet Inc. as “a self-driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around.” He stressed that Waymo is “not a car company.”

“We’re not in the business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers,” he said while announcing the news at the tech giant’s office in San Francisco; a livestream was made available at other Google offices across the United States, including Ann Arbor. “We’re a self-driving technology company — a super important point for you guys to have with what we’re sharing today.”

The former Hyundai Motor Co. exec described the new company as “the best of both worlds,” citing Waymo will continue to have access to Alphabet infrastructure and resources but be able to operate more as a venture-backed startup company.

Google’s self-driving cars have driven more than 2.3 million miles since the project started in 2009. Its current fleet of vehicles includes 24 Lexus RX450h SUVs and 34 Google prototype vehicles that test in Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Phoenix.

Krafcik stressed as a standalone business, Waymo will push to commercialize self-driving technology to help reduce, if not eliminate, roadway fatalities; give those who may not be able to drive, the opportunity to do so; and reduce waste — both social and economic. He cited people on average waste 50 minutes per day in cars commuting, while vehicles themselves sit idle and unused most — 95 percent — of the day.

“It’s amazing that we have accepted that level of waste in human capital; waste in machine capital,” he said.

Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, shared — at length — his experiences with Google’s self-driving car technology during the hour-long presentation.

Mahan became a well-known industry name and advocate for Google’s self-driving car project after a video on YouTube of him was posted in one of the Google self-driving prototypes in May 2012. The vehicle did not feature a steering wheel or pedals, and no one else was in the car with him.

“It will change the life prospect for persons such as myself,” he said. “I want very much to become a member of the driving public again, and this technology is going to bring that to pass. I’m excited to be alive now and have this exposure to the technology. I am looking forward to the distribution of these vehicles into the driving arena.”

Krafcik said the company sees ride-sharing as a potential opportunity for Waymo, but he did not address a Tuesday report from Bloomberg News that the company plans to start a ride-sharing service using minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

Google in May announced a partnership with the Italian-American automaker to start testing self-driving minivans by year’s end. Aside from the announcement, neither side has really discussed the partnership, which included collaboratively working to integrate Google’s self-driving technology into a fleet of 100 custom-built 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

Krafcik said the companies are in “the build-phase” of installing next-generation sensors on the Chrysler Pacificas to get them “on the road in the very near future.”

“FCA has been a wonderful partner in working with us,” he said. “It’s a really solid, and deep integration into the vehicle to do this right.”

Bloomberg reported Google plans to deploy a semi-autonomous version of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan that it’s developing with the Italian-American carmaker for the new service as early as the end of 2017.

A spokeswoman for Fiat Chrysler on Tuesday declined to comment on the report.

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Twitter: @MikeWayland