Waymo’s new co-CEOs Tekedra Mawakana and Dmitri Dolgov say Alphabet’s self-driving powerhouse is sticking to a safety-conscious roadmap to robotic ride-hailing, trucks and personal vehicles, even if that means a longer path to commercialization. In their first joint interview, they also share concerns that scrutiny of fatal Tesla accidents, related to its partially automated system, could chip away at consumer confidence in autonomous technology.
Mawakana, who was most recently chief operating officer, and Dolgov, who has been CTO and is a founding member of Google’s Self-Driving Car moonshot that kicked off competition in the technology in 2009, were promoted to lead the company as it edges toward commercialization. They succeed John Krafcik, who stepped down on April 2. Their tenure begins as U.S. safety officials conduct dozens of reviews of Tesla crashes linked to its Autopilot feature, including a fiery April 17 collision in Houston that killed two people. (Unlike what Waymo is developing, Autopilot is a “Level 2” driver-assist feature, requiring a human to be ready to take over.)
“The fatalities in Texas, for us, those are hard days. That’s what we’re here to prevent,” Mawakana tells Forbes. “What we’re seeing right now is a lot of confusion among consumers treating one type of system as another. That does pose a risk to this category of products and we do worry about that.”
Waymo is the benchmark self-driving vehicle program, but its path to commercialization has been slower than many anticipated. The Alphabet-backed company has spent 12 years and billions of dollars refining a Level-4 robotic driving system, requiring no human at the wheel, to underpin a multibillion-dollar business comprising robotaxis, autonomous delivery vehicles and big rigs and selling the system to automakers for use in personal vehicles. Reducing on-road fatalities–more than 40,000 in the U.S. in 2020–is also a core Waymo goal, so gaining public confidence that its technology can be safer than a human at the wheel is vital. That’s why the new leaders say they’ll stick with rigorous testing and measured public deployments for now.
“There isn’t a chance to build, develop, deploy and introduce this technology again. You have to do it right the first time,” Mawakana says. “You have to build public trust, you have to gain acceptance, you have to make sure the regulatory landscape is ripe and right for it. Then you launch what we believe will be a very successful service, and then you can scale from there.”
She declined to share a timeline for when that will happen.
“There isn’t a chance to build, develop, deploy and introduce this technology again. You have to do it right the first time”
Waymo remains focused on perfecting its Waymo One ride service in suburban Phoenix, where increasingly minivans with no human backup at the wheel pick up paying passengers. It may next launch a similar service in the San Francisco Bay Area though, unlike Arizona, California doesn’t yet permit paid robotaxi rides. Through its Waymo Via logistics arm it runs a robotic van delivery service with commercial partners in the Phoenix area and is ramping up testing of semi trucks equipped with its autonomous tech. Its truck fleet has grown significantly in the past year to 26 units currently, according to the U.S. Transportation Department, and the company partnered with Daimler Trucks to develop robotic big rigs that will be sold in years to come.
For Dolgov, the challenge of perfecting autonomous driving has turned out to be tougher than expected. “When we started in 2009, I think the long-term promise of this technology and the transformative nature of this was clear, even though it was very unclear how hard the problem would be.”
And while competitors such as General Motors-backed Cruise and Amazon’s Zoox focus mainly on creating robotaxi services, robot truck developer TuSimple targets highway-driving big rigs and companies like Nuro and Gatik zero in on automated delivery services, Waymo intends to keep pursuing all those applications simultaneously.
While those are different market uses, “from the tech side, I would say that actually the fundamentals, the core, first-order problems, and that core technical foundation, carries over really well,” Dolgov says. “Ride-hailing is our first, most mature application, but then you can draft behind it. Also the work that you do on deliveries and in trucking gives you very positive feedback that actually makes the core technology and the core product more general, stronger and more robust.”
In 2020 Waymo raised $3 billion from investors outside of Alphabet for the first time, including private equity and venture firms Silver Lake Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Investment, Magna and AutoNation. Alphabet remains majority shareholder and its leadership is “supportive of the timeframe that we’ve laid out and also understand the approach that we’re taking strategically, being very deliberative as well as safety-centered,” Mawakana says.
Likewise, Waymo’s partners, are “completely aligned in terms of optimizing for the long-term success of this business,” Dolgov says. “This is such a transformative opportunity, the positive impact that it can have on society, as well as the market opportunity. That’s what we’re all after.”