The self-driving vehicle holds a commanding lead on its rivals—but perhaps not for long.
Waymo is ahead of the self-driving pack in almost every metric. Its autonomous driving system is the most sophisticated and valuable, and it has led the industry ever since it started in 2009.
So, is it possible Waymo will not be the Facebook/Amazon/Uber of its category?
The self-driving market is still emerging, in the sense that nobody is able to buy these vehicles and hardly anyone is able to ride in them. To most people, the thought of being in a driverless vehicle scares them; they wouldn’t take a ride even if it was free.
That minuscule deployment, with an added dose of terrible public opinion, means that nobody is going to win, per se, for some time. It will be at least another half a decade of tiptoeing towards some form of limited taxi service, which will only be available in the few states that legalize the technology.
Nonetheless, self-driving cars are already ready.
Waymo, Cruise, Uber and other leaders in the field have systems that are, in most cases, better than human drivers. Does that mean no accidents? No, but self-driving vehicles aren’t entering a well-organized environment. According to the CDC, every day almost 3,700 people are killed globally in road traffic crashes involving cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, or pedestrians.
Compared to humans, self-driving vehicles are far more cautious and less susceptible to distraction. They don’t overtake as a road bends, they don’t u-turn into oncoming traffic, and they don’t get annoyed after an eight-hour shift at every slight inconvenience.
For anyone unconvinced, I implore you to watch some of the video footage published by Waymo, Tesla, Drive.AI, Zoox, and Cruise. These are far better than the “I took a trip in a driverless car” videos, as the raw footage shows in the most mundane way in which autonomous vehicles are road-ready.
As Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt proposed, these videos should be the barometer for sophistication and all operators should publish raw footage regularly.
So what’s holding Waymo back?
It’s not the technology that needs another five years, it is public opinion and regulation. Even as far back as 2015, ex-Waymo CEO Chris Urmson showed the superiority of self-driving to humans.
We are currently facing a catch-22, in which public opinion won’t improve until autonomous vehicles are more readily available, but self-driving vehicles won’t be approved for public use if everyone is skeptical of them.
A show of the technology’s sophistication could stir some support. For example, if Waymo managed to compete strongly in a Formula 1 or NASCAR test race, it may change the conversation surrounding self-driving.
For Waymo, the longer the wait, the more time other operators have to catch up in technological sophistication. However, the tech industry is not in the best shape to court public opinion or fight regulators. In both the U.S. and Europe, people appear more dubious of the tech giants than ever before, which has led to more hearings and larger fines than ever before.
That is why something like a publicity move might be necessary.
Public opinion aside: Is Waymo in the best position to win?
Again, it depends on Waymo’s ambitions.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said:
“Our role could be just focusing on the [software] and leaving the rest of the customer experience to others in the industry”, indicating that hardware and services could be deployed by others.
It’s unlikely Waymo will not launch any form of ride-hailing service. It already runs Waymo One in Chandler, Arizona. However, it may license its technology to car manufacturers and service operators, similar to how Google licenses its mapping technology while also providing the service to consumers.
The lack of car manufacturers is considered an issue for Waymo, but it’s clear from the deals its been able to forge with Fiat and Volvo that finding a partner won’t be difficult. Alphabet also has over $100 billion cash on hand, so if necessary, it could always acquire an automotive manufacturer, although that may cause more regulatory trouble.
How the autonomous market emerges will be key to Waymo’s entry. In a previous blog, I looked at four possible types of commercialization: taxi services, shuttle services, rental or full ownership.
While Waymo might have the capabilities to handle software and services for the first two, for the latter, it may only provide the software.
Even without services, it would still be a successful brand if it leads the competition in sophistication. Software is a far higher margin business than hardware or services for self-driving, as self-driving services require local garages (to clean the cars), charge stations and customer support advisors.
Almost all automakers are still working on autonomous programs or have invested heavily in a Waymo rival, but this crowd is expected to thin in the next few years. If a few automakers find their autonomous system lacking in comparison, they may terminate it and partner with Waymo.
Coming back to the initial question: is it possible that Waymo won’t come out on top?
Sure. In time, there will be multiple software and service providers for self-driving cars. Car manufacturers, in turn, may stick with partnered software. In services, Waymo may struggle against better-known brands, like Uber, Lyft and Didi.
But perhaps Waymo’s biggest worry should be that it won’t reach the starting line.
This is a follow-up ‘Why is Waymo ahead?’