Weekly Brief: Waymo Pledges No Drivers in Its Robo-Taxis

Waymo will soon go where no robo-taxi fleet has gone before.

Last week the tech company reached out to members of its Early Rider pilot program with a letter titled “Completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way”. In it the company detailed how it plans to start removing human safety drivers from behind the wheel of its Chrysler minivans in Tempe, Arizona. Its employees may still be in the vehicle, at least at first, but they’ll have no control of steering, braking or signaling once the car is in motion. Passengers will be notified by an app ahead of time if their vehicle will be fully driverless. If something goes awry, passengers can communicate with rider support agents via the app or the in-vehicle help button.

There’s a lot we still don’t know here. It remains to be seen when this will start or how many safety drivers Waymo plans to remove when it does. It could be a couple, it could be the majority of those who ride in its Tempe fleet. Likewise, it is staying mum on where exactly these fully driverless vehicles will be allowed to go. Is it on all public roads in Tempe or just those that are safest in terms of traffic and least complex when it comes to intersections and pedestrians?

One way or another, this is a milestone moment for the self-driving car industry. For the first time a company is letting its robo-taxi fleet off the leash and letting it loose on public streets while customers cruise by themselves in the backseat. A long road has led to this moment. Waymo has tested its technology more than any other company, on public and private roads and in computer simulations, since its founding as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009. It’s run dozens of pilots and launched the first commercial robo-taxi service in the world, Waymo One. After all of that, the company finally believes that it’s ready to remove safety drivers without posing any additional risk to its riding customers or the general public.

Hopefully, it’s made this decision without any external pressure to accelerate commercial deployment. The timing would argue otherwise. Analysts at Morgan Stanley recently slashed their valuation of Waymo by 40%, from $175Bn to $105Bn, owing to the fact that its robo-taxi units still needed safety drivers behind the wheel, which will keep operating losses high far into the future. Google stock fell 1.3% the same day. Fast forward two weeks and news breaks that Waymo is removing its first safety drivers from behind the wheel. It could be coincidence. It might not be.

If I had to place a bet, the Morgan Stanley valuation matters less to the company than ongoing competition from Tesla, which says it plans to deploy a robo-taxi service in 2020. Elon Musk is brazen enough to do that without safety drivers, even if his technology isn’t ready (See my article from last week, Tesla Tech Places Driverless Industry at Risk). Likewise Ford plans to launch its driverless taxi service in Austin, Texas, in 2021, and General Motors’ Cruise postponed its 2019 deployment but is believed to be approaching its revised deployment date.

Waymo doesn’t want to cede an advantage to any of these companies. It also doesn’t want to get into a bad accident or kill a pedestrian with a paying customer on board. It’s a game of balance between mitigating risk and establishing first-to-market advantage. It’s leaning toward the latter. Let’s see the results.


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