Waymo is 99% of the way to self-driving cars. The last 1% is the hardest

Joel Johnson laughs nervously from the backseat when his self-driving cab pulls up in the middle of a busy suburban Phoenix road. The car, operated by autonomous vehicle pioneer Waymo, has encountered a row of traffic cones in a construction area and will not budge. “Take the tour, man,” Johnson says, gesturing to the drivers honking behind him.

After the vehicle has spent 14 mostly motionless minutes obstructing traffic, a Waymo technician tries to approach, but the car unexpectedly rolls forward, away from him. “It definitely seemed like a dangerous situation,” Johnson recalls.

Incidents like this, which Johnson posted on his YouTube channel in May, are embarrassing for Waymo – a company with its own issues moving forward. A unit of Alphabet Inc., Waymo has not extended its robo-taxi service beyond Phoenix after years of careful testing. The company has started movements in other areas – trucking, logistics, personal vehicles – but the companies are in their infancy. And its production process to add cars to its driverless fleet has been painfully slow.

This spring, Waymo saw a massive exodus of top talent. This included its CEO, CFO and heads of the trucking, manufacturing and automotive product partnerships. People familiar with departures say some executives have felt frustrated by the slow progress in the company.

Despite years of research and billions of dollars invested, the technology behind self-driving cars still has flaws. Not so long ago, a glorious future for autonomous vehicles from Waymo and its many competitors seemed at hand. Now “what people are realizing is that the work ahead is really tough,” says Tim Papandreou, a former employee and transit consultant.

The leader

Waymo, by most measures, is still the leader in the global autonomous vehicle effort. Development of its technology began at Google over a decade ago, and the company took a historic milestone last year by launching its fully autonomous taxi program in Arizona. During the pandemic, many rivals gave up autonomous driving (Uber Technologies Inc.) or sold out to rivals (Zoox, which was acquired by Amazon.com Inc.). Waymo has continued, raising $ 5.7 billion from outside investors since last summer, adding to the untold billions Alphabet has already spent.

Waymo underlines its remarkable track record compared to those of its rivals. Since last fall, the company claims to have provided “tens of thousands” of unmanned rides in Arizona. “We consider this to be a huge accomplishment,” a spokesperson for Waymo said in a statement. “In fact, the absence of another completely autonomous commercial offering demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve this feat. “

Small disturbances like construction crews, cyclists, left turns and pedestrians are still headaches. Every city poses unique new challenges, and right now no driverless car from any company can gracefully handle rain, sleet or snow.

But the company’s remaining competitors have also started to take important steps. Argo AI, backed by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG, will start charging for robot rides in Miami and Austin later this year, but with a human assistant behind the wheel. Zoox and Cruise, funded by General Motors, Honda and SoftBank, have started testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California. While none of these companies have made a profit on autonomous driving technology yet, they are all spending billions of dollars wiping out Waymo’s initial lead.

Waymo split from Google’s research lab in 2016 to become Alphabet’s last subsidiary. At the time, many Waymonauts – as the employees call themselves – believed the machine was in place for fully autonomous cars to use public roads imminently.

In 2017, the year Waymo launched autonomous rides with a human rescue driver in Phoenix, someone hired by the company learned that its robot fleets would expand to nine cities in 18 months. Staff often spoke of having solved “99% of the problem” with driverless cars. “We all assumed he was ready,” says another ex-Waymonaut. “We would just flip a switch and turn it on.”

But it turns out that the last 1% was a killer. Small disturbances like construction crews, cyclists, left turns and pedestrians are still headaches for computer operators. Every city poses unique new challenges, and right now no driverless car from any company can gracefully handle rain, sleet or snow. Until these final details are sorted out, full-scale commercialization of fully autonomous vehicles is virtually impossible.

“We went to the moon, and it’s like, now what?” Said Mike Ramsey, analyst at Gartner in Detroit and longtime industry viewer. “We stick a flag on it, we take stones, but now what? There is nothing we can do with this moon.

Assembly required

At first it appeared that Waymo would be producing cars at a supercharged rate. In 2018, Waymo pledged to produce up to 20,000 Jaguar SUVs in Waymo autonomous vehicles. Months later, it announced it would expand its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans to over 60,000. Waymo planned to buy the cars and install what he called his “driver” – a suite of cameras, sensors and exclusive computer equipment.

“There’s not much to the assembly,” said then CEO John Krafcik, a former auto executive. at an event that year.

In fact, qualified disassembly is required. The engineers have to take the cars apart and put them back together by hand. A misplaced wire can leave engineers stumped for days on the source of the problem, according to an operations person who describes the system as heavy and prone to quality issues. Like others who have spoken candidly about the company, the former employee asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Qualified disassembly 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 laborious nature of the process left Waymo without a viable path to mass production, the person says. Waymo has reduced parts orders for the Chrysler minivan project and delivered far fewer Jaguars than initially expected, according to people familiar with the automaker’s plans.

A spokesperson for Waymo said the company was not limited by the offer in Detroit and was on track to meet all of its in-house production targets with Jaguar, but declined to share details. The company also denies having fallen behind in the construction of its Chrysler vehicles, noting 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 think Waymo is the leader when it comes to technology, but the manufacturing capability could give Detroiters an edge when it comes to deploying fleets, according to Ramsey, the Gartner analyst. “I don’t know what their current number is,” he says of Waymo’s production. “But it hasn’t changed much.

In 2019, Waymo leased a warehouse in Detroit to be, as Krafcik said at the time, “the world’s first dedicated stand-alone factory.” Michigan officials agreed to give the company an $ 8 million grant, in part in exchange for creating at least 100 jobs in the state. As of last fall, Waymo hired 22 people to work at the facility, state documents show. The company said it exceeded the job creation commitment of 100 people in the state and would not comment on the staffing of specific offices.

Earlier this year, Waymo was trying to produce 5 to 10 vehicles per day at the plant, says a former employee. The company disputes this claim.

Changes at the top

After years of publicly touting the wonders of autonomous driving, Waymo staff have started in recent years to talk about managing people’s expectations of what their cars can do and when. Several people who worked at Waymo describe parent company Alphabet as extremely cautious, especially after an Uber autonomous test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018.

For example, Waymo’s ad hoc board dismissed a strong marketing pitch from Krafcik, according to three people familiar with the decision. In 2018, he wanted to host a multi-city demo of the company’s technology, with pop-up marketing facilities showcasing what Waymo could do. Tesla Inc. had achieved something similar with its early models. But the company’s board of directors, made up of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as big names from Alphabet and a few outside investors, feared repeating the failures of Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses. misfires, by introducing a product before it is ready. . A spokesperson for Waymo said the company had simply gone in a different direction.

Krafcik left the company in April. The new co-CEOs are Tekedra Mawakana, former COO of Waymo, and Dmitri Dolgov, who was its CTO. The pair met with funders and partners this spring as Waymo wrapped up its fundraising round. According to an investor, the new chiefs were optimistic at a recent meeting, saying that with the end of the pandemic, the company was preparing to make “huge progress” towards its goals.

Meanwhile in Phoenix, even after his traffic cone incident, YouTuber Joel Johnson was still excited about the tech. “He seems to handle just about anything I try to throw at him,” he says. In other words, it works 99% of the time.

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