Waymo’s new sense of reality: Are driverless cars miles away?
Waymo tempers expectations, Mercedes secures a potent partner and Ford wants to “stay in the mix”: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!
It’s in the DNA of every Silicon Valley company to think big. It’s about making the world a better place – not in ten years, but asap. As we all know, Alphabet/Google is no different. The company even has a moonshot division that launches “technologies that aim to improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people”.
The same mindset has always been a driving force behind Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo. Former CTO Chris Urmson famously said in 2015 that he was committed to the idea that his 11-year-old son would not have to get a driving license when the time comes around in 2019. Compare that to Waymo CEO John Krafcik’s recent statement at the National Governors Association in Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to The Verge, he emphasized that mass deployment of autonomous vehicles would likely take “longer than you think”. He went on to say that while Waymo intends to kick off a paid driverless ride sharing service soon, there won’t be fully autonomous (level 5) vehicles available to purchase for years to come.
You can’t help but thinking that a new sense of reality has developed at Waymo. Interestingly enough, this comes at a time when the self-driving car frontrunner hit another milestone. The company just announced that their autonomous vehicles have driven 8 million miles on public roads, by far exceeding the efforts of any competitor. Krafcik also said that Waymo has gathered an additional 5 billion miles in simulations.
It seems that despite all the progress that has undoubtedly been made, Waymo might have hit a saturation curve. Most likely due to those tricky edge cases that even Waymo just can’t solve yet. Could this be the chance for trailing carmakers to catch up?
Mercedes & Baidu join forces against Waymo
If you ask driverless car guru Sebastian Thrun, Waymo hasn’t won the race yet. Thrun, who built up Google’s self-driving car unit, just told Automotive News: “I currently consider the Google-Waymo team to be the best. But its lead is shrinking. Audi, BMW, VW and Mercedes are making progress”.
Thrun also hinted that just because you are on top, you don’t necessarily have to stay there. “Germany was originally in the forefront thanks to Mercedes,” he said. “The brand has been involved with autonomous driving for a long time.” To further make up ground, Mercedes has just partnered with one of Waymo’s biggest rivals: Baidu. The two plan to cooperate more closely on automated driving and connectivity services in the German automaker’s vehicles. The Chinese IT giant’s connectivity services will be integrated into Mercedes-Benz’s new infotainment system known as MBUX.
While few details have emerged of the cooperation, one area of expertise of Baidu is artificial intelligence – a field where Waymo is still considered leading. This reinforces a thesis we at 2025AD have repeatedly stated: building alliances and joining forces will be a prerequisite for the successful deployment of driverless cars on our roads.
Driverless cars: survival of the fittest
There are dozens of traditional carmakers and start-ups working on autonomous driving solutions. But how many will survive in the end? Reuters reported last week that the Ford senior management believes that the market for self-driving vehicles will eventually boil down to around three or four major players. And according to a source familiar with Ford’s thinking, “they want to be in the mix”.
How? By taking “a step out of GM’s playbook to try to unlock value”, as an analyst put it. Just like General Motors did with its Cruise Automation Unit, Ford will create a separate 4 billion U.S. dollars driverless car unit. The spin-off will be called “Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC” and hopes to attract third-party investments – like Softbank, who are investing 2.25 billion U.S. dollars in GM Cruise.
Not so long ago we witnessed Ford recalibrate its position – having initially promised self-driving cars by 2021. Promising big doesn’t always pay off and I can’t help but notice the shift in tonality here: “want to be in the mix” is certainly less promising. I’m not saying the ambition is any lower but perhaps Ford realizes that staying in the mix might be much easier said than done.
So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),
Senior Editor, 2025AD