Weekly Brief: Waymo embraces B2B against robo-taxi uncertainty

Drivers don’t like driverless cars.

A decade after Google launched its self-driving car division, after hundreds of pilots on public roads by dozens of companies and increased exposure to the concept in the media and entertainment, distrust remains high among the general public and the prospect of a fully autonomous future continues to scare the daylights out of many people, no matter what country they live in. Last week researchers published a poll of 3000 adults in the UK; 75% said they feared a fully driverless future and 60% said they’d prefer to drive their own cars with integrated autonomous features rather than become full-time passengers in robo-taxis.

Polls in the US have produced similar results. More worrisome, pilots and trials on public roads have led to physical backlash. In Chandler, Arizona, where Waymo first launched its Early Rider pilot, Waymo vehicles have been attacked more than 20 times in two years by angry bystanders and drivers. This goes way beyond fist shaking. The Chandler police department has reported Waymo cars getting hit by rocks. People have tried to run them off the road and braked hard in front of them to force them into a crash. They’ve slashed their tires and threatened engineers with PVC pipe. One guy pointed a .22 caliber gun at the safety driver behind the wheel of a Waymo vehicle and told him to get out of his neighborhood.

Are these extremes? Of course they are. Is resistance to be expected whenever you introduce a new idea, especially one that demands a paradigm shift in the way people have approached transportation for more than a century and which, oh by the way, may eliminate millions of jobs between the trucking industry and the taxi and ride-hailing industry in the process? You bet it is. Every disruptive change faces skepticism. Every action causes a reaction. When two objects collide, both experience the same force but in opposite directions. Newton taught us that. The rough road ahead for a fully autonomous future will remind us of it.

Last week Waymo inked a new deal with AutoNation, the largest auto retail supplier in America. The two have worked together in the past. The company has experimented with giving AutoNation customers free rides to car dealerships. It’s also used its partner to help maintain its own fleet of robo-taxis. This latest deal is different. In the months ahead Waymo vehicles will begin to transport AutoNation car parts from one production location to another as well as to thirty party locations. In other words, it has an audition to become the parts producer’s primary delivery service.

It makes sense. The delivery routes will be consistent and in less trafficked places than, say, a neighborhood cul-de-sac where an angry parent could be perturbed to the point of a PVC pipe. The opportunity is huge. Back in June we saw Walmart announce a partnership with Gatik AI to start moving goods on short hauls between businesses. Delivery companies like FedEx and UPS, as well as the US Postal Service, are exploring self-driving technology to move goods. Meanwhile self-driving big rigs have the ability to disrupt the long-distance trucking industry and carve out significant new revenue streams for autonomous vehicle companies.

Waymo assures that, in pursuing business-to-business opportunities, it’s not giving up on passenger transportation. To the contrary, it’s expanding to new cities and states. For the first time in Arizona, it’s set to roll out robo-taxis without any safety drivers behind the wheel while passengers ride in the backseat. Robo-taxis are coming in other words, whether or not you like it but self-driving delivery services are coming too, faster and with less resistance and an easier path to market. They’ll go mainstream long before robo-taxis will. You can bet on that.

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