Weekly Brief: Global Disruption May Spark Driverless Renaissance

The population of Florence, Italy, in 1338 was roughly 120,000 people.

Fast forward to 1351, through the ravages of the Bubonic Plague, and that number had dropped to 50,000. Recurring outbreaks of the Black Death further reduced the population in subsequent decades. When all was said and done, Florence, like much of Europe, was a shell of its former self.

The result, historians believe, was the Italian Renaissance. With so much of the old order dismantled or destroyed, unprecedented opportunities arose for upward mobility and reinvention of longstanding norms. Buildings could be reimagined. Modes of transportation could be reconsidered. Future stars of art, science, mathematics and more could be born from all walks of life, including penniless peasants like Leonardo da Vinci’s mother.

I was reminded of the example of Florence when Waymo announced an expanded partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles last week. The stated goal of Waymo’s new deal is to “[open] up new frontiers for ride-hailing, commercial delivery and personal-use vehicles around the world,” according to its CEO John Krafcik.

Unlike Elon Musk, Krafcik isn’t one to exaggerate for the sake of news cycles and share prices. He went on to explain that Waymo plans to integrate its Waymo Driver self-driving tech across FCA’s portfolio, from commercial vans to ride-hailing vehicles to consumer cars. The intended result is Level 4 fully autonomous capabilities in every single one of the automakers’ brands: Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati and Ram. Ram is a particular focus as Waymo is keen to enter the light commercial vehicle segment and fill out its autonomous trucking and delivery service, Waymo Via, with Ram ProMaster vans. FCA’s upcoming merger with the French PSA Group makes the potential reach of this project even greater.

In other words, Waymo is making its first big play at the mass market. In some respects, this isn’t a surprise. The company has been the leader in self-driving tech for more than a decade. It has a clear vision for how it can transform transportation and delivery in the twenty-first century and it has the engineering chops to back it up.

What’s striking here isn’t the announcement itself, therefore, but the timing. For the last three months, the automotive sector has been on skates, self-driving start-ups have been on the rocks and autonomous vehicle pilots and programs have been grounded. COVID-19 was a setback for the self-driving revolution, it seemed, not a turbo boost. Yet with Amazon’s recent acquisition of Zoox and now Waymo’s move with FCA, it’s clear the big players see how disruptive COVID-19 has been. Like the Renaissance after the plague, new paradigms may be easier to introduce now than would have otherwise been possible had the pandemic never come along.

Tesla gets it too. As Waymo made headlines last week, Elon Musk was on an earnings call with investors. He expressed his confidence that Tesla will be in a position to enable fully self-driving cars by the end of the year. Musk called his company’s technology “profoundly better than people realize” and revealed that he currently drives to and from work each day using an alpha build of Tesla’s autonomous tech. “So this is why I am very confident about full self-driving functionality being complete by the end of this year, is because I’m literally driving it,” he said.

Tesla would become the first major automaker with self-driving cars on the road. Granted, Musk has over-promised in the past but, tack on Waymo’s arrival in the commercial vehicle segment and Amazon’s push into driverless deliveries, and this begins to look less like bluster and more like a theme: 2020 could become the year self-driving cars finally go mainstream. Imagine that.

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