Weekly Brief: New Hands on Waymo’s Wheel to Decide Driverless Direction

The most consequential self-driving car company on the planet has new leadership to guide it forward.

Waymo’s long-standing CEO, John Krafcik, has stepped aside and a pair of co-CEOs will take his place. The first is the company’s former COO Tekedra Mawakana, a lawyer by training and a woman of color. The second is Waymo’s former CTO, Dmitri Dolgov. Krafcik is leaving at his own choosing after serving as the company’s CEO since 2015, when it was a little-known Alphabet moonshot named Project Chauffeur. Krafcik had formerly served as the CEO of Hyundai Motor America and brought with him an auto enthusiast’s desire to take self-driving technology mainstream.

In many ways he succeeded. Under his helm, Project Chauffeur transformed into a standalone start-up built on radically advanced artificial intelligence. It logged millions of test miles, launched pilots in multiple states and, in 2018, debuted the first commercialized robo-taxi service in the world in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Now, with the fully autonomous Waymo One ride-hailing service open to all in our launch area of Metro Phoenix, and with the fifth generation of the Waymo Driver being prepared for deployment in ride-hailing and goods delivery, it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to pass the baton to Tekedra and Dmitri as Waymo’s co-CEOs,” Krafcik wrote on LinkedIn last week.

A tall task awaits the new CEOs. Krafcik may have overseen tremendous growth but the last years of his tenure failed to deliver the mainstream traction he so desired or the big ride-hailing revenues that would have come with it. Waymo’s valuation plummeted from $175Bn in 2018, projected by Morgan Stanley, to $30Bn in 2020 as the company collided with the reality that safely deploying robo-taxis at scale, without exposing the company to legal peril, was exceedingly difficult.

That would appear to be one reason that Waymo took the unconventional approach of naming two CEOs. Tekedra brings with her the expertise to navigate the bumpy legal road that lies ahead for autonomous technology as the company attempts to introduce it at scale without clear guidance or laws from the federal government to light the way. Meanwhile Dmitri is a tech junkie who participated on the winning team in the famous DARPA challenge back in 2007 and has been with Google’s self-driving-car project since its inception in 2009. If the technology needs to get better to ensure safety and a higher level of performance, that’s his wheelhouse.

It will be interesting to watch how Waymo adjusts its approach under the tenure of the new CEOs. Will it continue to focus primarily on launching a commercialized robo-taxi service for the general public or will it shift its energy toward automakers who want to integrate self-driving tech into their vehicles, albeit in more simplified forms?

Last week Toyota launched its new Advanced Drive semi-autonomous system in Japan, which will debut on the Lexus LS and Toyota Mirai. Toyota’s Advanced Drive is a Level 2 autonomous technology that offers automatic lane-keeping, lane changes and automatic cruise control, so long as drivers keep their eyes trained on the road and their hands on the wheel at all times.  This is a far cry from what a fully souped up Waymo One vehicle can deliver. There’s no LiDAR, there’s no autonomy, it’s little more than a shiny advanced driver assistance system.

Then again, the risk is low and the money is good, explaining carmakers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for integrating increasingly advanced, semi-autonomous and eventually fully autonomous systems into their cars. We’ll see if Waymo tacks in the B2B direction or holds its current course targeted at the general public.

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