Joel Johnson laughs nervously from the back seat as his self-driving cab pulls up in the middle of a busy Phoenix suburban street. The car, operated by the autonomous vehicle pioneer Waymo, has encountered a series of traffic cones in a construction site and is not moving. “Walk around, man,” says Johnson, indicating the drivers honking behind him.
After the vehicle 14 spent mostly motionless minutes blocking traffic, a Waymo technician tries to approach – but the car unexpectedly rolls forward, away from him. “It definitely seemed like a dangerous situation,” recalls Johnson.
Incidents like this one Johnson posted on his YouTube channel in May are embarrassing for Waymo – a company that has its own problems moving forward. Waymo, a unit of Alphabet Inc., has not expanded its robo-taxi service beyond Phoenix after years of careful testing. The company has started moves to other areas – trucks, logistics, cars – but the business is still at an early stage. And the production process for adding cars to its driverless fleet has been painfully slow.
That spring, Waymo saw a massive drain of top talent. This included the chief executive officer, chief financial officer and the heads of truck product, manufacturing and automotive partnerships. People familiar with the exits say that some executives were frustrated with the company’s sluggishness.
Despite years of research and billions of dollars in investment, the technology behind self-driving cars still has flaws. Not so long ago, a glorious future for autonomous vehicles seemed near by Waymo and its many competitors. “People are now realizing that the work ahead is really tough,” says Tim Papandreou, a former employee and traffic advisor.
Waymo is still leading the autonomous vehicle drive by most standards. Google began developing its technology more than a decade ago, and the company reached a historic milestone last year when it launched its fully driverless taxi program in Arizona. During the pandemic, many rivals gave up self-driving (Uber Technologies Inc.) or sold themselves to rivals (Zoox, which was acquired by Amazon.com Inc.). Waymo went ahead, raising $ 5.7 billion from outside investors since last summer, adding to the myriad billions Alphabet has already spent.
Waymo points to its remarkable track record compared to that of its rivals. Since last fall, the company says it has been offering “tens of thousands” of driverless trips in Arizona. “We think this is an enormous achievement,” a Waymo spokesman said in a statement. “Indeed, the lack of any other such fully autonomous commercial offering is evidence of how difficult it is to accomplish this feat.”
Small disturbances such as construction crews, cyclists, Left turns and pedestrians remain headaches. Every city presents new, unique challenges, and currently no corporate driverless car can gracefully handle rain, sleet, or snow.
But the company’s remaining competitors have also started to reach milestones. Argo AI, supported by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG, will be charging fees for robot drives in Miami and Austin later this year – albeit with a human attendant at the wheel. Zoox and Cruise, funded by General Motors, Honda, and SoftBank, have begun testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California. While none of these companies have made profits on self-driving technology to date, they are all pouring billions of dollars into mining Waymo’s early lead.
Waymo parted ways with Google’s research lab in 2016 to become Alphabet’s newest subsidiary and went on a hiring tour to recruit staff to close deals with automakers, create financial models, influence government institutions, and commercialize its technology. At the time, many Waymonauts – as the employees call themselves – believed that the machinery was in place so that completely driverless cars could drive directly onto public roads.
In 2017, the year that Waymo launched self-driving rides with a replacement human driver in Phoenix, a person hired by the company was told that its robot fleets would be expanded to nine cities within 18 months. Employees often discussed that they had solved “99% of the problem” of self-driving cars. “We all assumed it was ready,” says another ex-Waymonaut. “We just flipped a switch and turned it on.”
But it turns out that the last 1% was a killer. Small disturbances such as construction crews, cyclists, Left-turners and pedestrians remain a headache for computer drivers. Every city presents new, unique challenges, and currently no corporate driverless car can gracefully handle rain, sleet, or snow. Until these final details are clarified, widespread commercialization of fully autonomous vehicles is next to impossible.
“We got to the moon and it’s like what now?” says Mike Ramsey, a Detroit Gartner analyst and longtime industry observer. “We put a flag in it, grab a few stones, but what now? We can’t do anything with this moon. “
At first it seemed like Waymo was producing cars at a breakneck pace. In 2018 Waymo committed to producing up to 20,000 Jaguar SUVs into Waymo’s autonomous vehicles. Months later, it announced it would expand its Chrysler Pacifica fleet Minivans to over 60,000. Waymo planned to buy the cars and install a so-called “driver”. – a range of cameras, sensors, and proprietary computer equipment.
“There’s not much going on in assembly,” said then CEO John Krafcik, a former auto manager at an event this year.
In reality, skillful dismantling is required. Engineers have to take the cars apart and put them back together by hand. Mislaid wire can leave engineers puzzling for days as to what the problem is, according to someone familiar with the operation, who describes the system as clumsy and prone to quality problems. Like others who spoke openly about the company, the former employee asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Professional dismantling is required. Waymo engineers have to take the cars apart and put them back together by hand. Argo and Cruise plan to build their driverless cars from scratch.
The careful nature of the process has left Waymo with no viable route to mass production, the person says. Waymo has cut parts orders for the Chrysler minivan project and shipped far fewer Jaguars than originally expected, according to people familiar with the automaker’s plans.
The Waymo spokesman says the Detroit company is not tied to supply bottlenecks and that it is on track to meet all of its internal production goals with Jaguar, but declines to share details. The company also denies that it has defaulted in building its Chrysler vehicles, citing that these agreements are “fluid and subject to change”.
Waymo’s competitors in Detroit already have extensive manufacturing capabilities. Argo and Cruise, for example, plan to build their driverless cars from scratch. Insiders generally believe Waymo is the technology leader, but manufacturing capabilities could give Detroiters the edge when it comes to introducing fleets, according to Ramsey, the Gartner analyst. “I don’t know what your current number is,” he says of Waymo’s production. “But it hasn’t moved much.”
In 2019, Waymo rented a warehouse in Detroit to be, as Krafcik said at the time, “the world’s first dedicated autonomous plant”. Michigan officials agreed to give the company a $ 8 million grant, in part in exchange for creating at least 100 jobs in the state. By last fall, Waymo had hired 22 people to work at the facility, according to state records. The company says it has exceeded the 100-person job creation requirement in the state and does not want to comment on the headcount of certain offices.
Waymo tried to produce 5 to 10 vehicles a day at the factory earlier this year, says a former employee. The company denies this claim.
After years of publicly promoting the wonders of autonomous driving, Waymo employees have, in recent years, started talking about what people expect from their cars, when and what they can do. Several Waymo employees describe parent company Alphabet as being extremely cautious, especially after an Uber self-driving test vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018.
For example, Waymo’s ad hoc board of directors shot down a lively marketing pitch from Krafcik, according to three people familiar with the decision. In 2018, he wanted to host a multicity demonstration of the company’s technology, with pop-up marketing installs showing what Waymo can do. Tesla Inc. did something similar with its early models. But the company’s board of directors – which consisted of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with Alphabet-Honchos and a few outside investors – was concerned about the failure of Google Glass, the flopped augmented reality glasses, with the launch of a product to repeat before it was done. A Waymo spokesman said the company simply took a different path.
Krafcik left the company in April. The new Co-CEOs are Tekedra Mawakana, formerly Chief Operating Officer of Waymo, and Dmitri Dolgov, who was previously Chief Technology Officer. The couple met with funders and partners this spring as Waymo closed its funding round. At a recent meeting, the new bosses were optimistic, according to an investor, saying that as the pandemic subsides, the company is preparing to make “great strides” on its goals.
In Phoenix, YouTuber Joel Johnson was still enthusiastic about the technology even after his traffic cone incident. “It seems to handle pretty much anything I try and throw at it,” he says. In other words, it works 99% of the time.