By on December 13, 2016

Google self-driving car

Technology companies need to stop attempting to build cars. This is all getting too convoluted.

Despite working at it longer than anyone else, Google appeared to be pulling out of the race to be the first tech company to produce an autonomous electric vehicle — a familiar fate for those who foray into the automotive world without a surfeit of experience. Apple’s Project Titan suffered a similar fate after multiple postponements to the vehicle’s intended release, strategy disagreements, large-scale layoffs, and the loss of key leadership assigned to the self-driving vehicle’s development.

Building a car is a serious undertaking, so it isn’t surprising that Google had to throw in the towel. The only problem is that, after quitting, Google announced that it was more committed to the goal of producing an autonomous vehicle than ever before.

The Information initially reported that Alphabet CEO Larry Page and CFO Ruth Porat were believed to be behind a decision to scale the Google car project back into oblivion. Apparently, someone felt that the concept of producing an fully autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals might be a little too radical. Instead, they decided that it might be more practical to partner with traditional automakers and produce a vehicle consumers were more accustomed to.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is already building a fleet of Pacifica-based test vehicles for Google. Assuming testing is successful, those units will reportedly move ahead for commercial service.

The assumption was that the Pacifica-based vehicles would be used as driverless ride-hailing vehicles while Google helped automakers perfect their own autonomous technology — abandoning the “Google Car” project in the process.

Then it was announced that Google’s self-driving car unit will now become an entirely separate company called Waymo, operating under Alphabet Inc.’s umbrella.

“It’s an indication of the maturity of our technology,” said John Krafcik, former CEO of Google Cars and now leader of Waymo, at a San Francisco press conference. “We can imagine our self-driving tech being used in all sorts of areas.”

Alphabet is describing Waymo as “a self-driving tech company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around.” Meanwhile, Google will stick to licensing its self-driving technology to third-party companies and quickly distance itself from a production vehicle.

“We’ll continue to have access of infrastructure and resources Alphabet provides, but we also have this feeling of being a venture-backed startup,” said Krafcik.

I hate to break it to John, but venture-backed startups haven’t done so well in the automotive industry lately. The company hasn’t explained when or how it will be generating revenue and Krafcik declined to discuss Waymo’s business strategy. Despite the claim that Google is “doubling down” on its efforts to build a physical vehicle with Waymo, the timing and language used isn’t confidence-inspiring.

“We are a self-driving technology company. We’ve been really clear that we are not a car company,” Krafcik said. “We are not in the business making better cars, we are in the business of making better drivers.”

[Source: Reuters] [Image: Google]

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40 Comments on “What the Hell is Happening With Google’s Autonomous Car?...”


  • avatar
    sirwired

    What happened? Google started with the absolute hardest driving environment, busy urban areas, instead of starting with the relatively easier environment of highway driving.

    This means that outside of the relatively small urban areas in which their cars work, they’ve been able to deliver absolutely bupkis besides a tech demo.

    • 0 avatar
      hgrunt

      My guess on what’s happening: Now that they’re a self-contained business, rather than a long-running project at Google that didn’t have to make money, they’re moving to monetize the autonomous tech.

      • 0 avatar
        Funky

        hbgrunt; This would make sense because it is the sort of path forward that would demonstrate / prove exactly what market exists for their products. Maybe something which is applicable to, but yet, beyond the automotive industry is where their future lies.

    • 0 avatar
      raffi14

      It’s because their approach is very rigid and needs high-resolution 3D maps of an area before it can drive there. On the contrary, others like Uber and Tesla rely mostly on computer vision trained from large vehicle fleets and drive more like humans do. Google would probably be doing something similar if they started the project today after all these deep learning advancements, instead of years ago.

      • 0 avatar
        Funky

        raffi14; The solution would possibly contain components of the two approaches. In other words, maybe, given general environment Type A, combined with all available stimuli inputs (camera, laser, radar, and microphone) potential behaviors / actions can be chosen (let’s say the system determines it has three potential actions for the given circumstances). And, then, the system would have to include an additional component which provides a method which allows it to simulate / predict what might potentially occur given the chosen behavior / action. Then, the system would make a “best” choice of what action to take.

  • avatar
    chiefmonkey

    Well, the cover of Newsweek read “The Internet: Bah! Why it Will Fail” or something to that effect in 1995. Newness takes time…if anything I think this could be a positive development. As a stand-alone-company technically still part of Google, Waymo will probably have a greater ability to focus on its actual mission rather than be distracted by other Google stuff, the market and the press.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Isn’t Krafcik the former CEO of Hyundai North America? If so, I wouldn’t cast aspersions on his knowledge, or lack thereof, of the industry.

    But yes, large-scale manufacturing of a regulated product is both difficult and expensive. This is why there have been precious few (non-supercar) OEMs in the past half-century.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      Yes, the same John Krafcik who essentially invented the term “Lean Production” while getting a master’ at MIT and contributed to the writing of “The Machine that Changed the World”. To some degree he actually wrote the book that other OEMs have been trying to copy for the last 30 years.

      He’s demonstrably a very smart guy and has worked throughout the auto industry since the 80’s with considerable success.

      I’d also be very disinclined to brush him off as a talking head. If he sees something worth pursuing here I bet there probably is.

      • 0 avatar
        Adam Tonge

        While he has a ton of knowledge and he “wrote the book” on lean manufacturing, it doesn’t seem that people are disappointed when he leaves their company.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          I dunno, I read his departure from Hyundai as being the result of a glass ceiling; there’s only so high a Westerner can go in a Japanese or Korean company.

        • 0 avatar
          bikegoesbaa

          I don’t know enough about the guy to talk to how people feel when he leaves, but I’m pretty confident that he knows as much about the auto industry as any living human.

          I’m not saying that he’s infallible, but his presence and buy-in is a strong sign that this is more than just typical Silicon Valley pie-in-the-sky future porn.

          • 0 avatar
            Adam Tonge

            That’s more than fair and I agree. He is as capable as anyone when it comes to completing the project milestones google would have needed to build a vehicle. If they can’t do it with him, it’s unlikely they could do it without him.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    We could use some of Waymo’s hot air right now where I live.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Google, Apple = deep pockets

    Both have realized that the downsides (lawsuits in event of failure) to autonomous vehicle systems outweigh the upsides (market domination).

    Better to spin off these enterprises into legally insulated entities with smaller scope.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      It isn’t the “autonomous” part, it’s the “vehicle” part. Making cars is expensive: you need a factory, workers, a supply chain, testing regimen, a history of designs to leverage, marketing, legal, etc, etc.

      Tesla is the only moderately successful, non-niche startup in some time, and they pretty much got lucky by virtue of a) a lot of lead time, b) lots of funding, c) selling heavily-modified Lotuses to keep afloat for the first few years. Despite this, their business model is still somewhat questionable.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      “Google will stick to licensing its self-driving technology to third-party companies and quickly distance itself from a production vehicle.”

      Kinda like the original Microsoft/Ford MyTouch Sync system.

  • avatar
    W126

    What a gorgeous car! Hopefully in a few years all Americans will be FORCED to use self-driving cars that look exactly like this. Also institute a 30 mph universal speed limit! It will all be worth it if it saves just one life! Let’s all team up to make Google even richer and we’ll just accept whatever technology that they foist upon us.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      I don’t really care all that much about saving lives, but I’m very enthusiastic about autonomous cars that will let me sleep, read, drink, or party while on a road trip.

      The car can look like whatever they want as long as I don’t have to drive it.

      • 0 avatar
        W126

        Whole lot of partying going on inside a car the size of a shoebox. If you are against driving on road trips, why would you even be on a car enthusiast website? Also why wouldn’t you care what a car looks like when you’re paying for it? Would you also be ok with a poor quality interior and mechanicals, as long as it’s self-driving?

        • 0 avatar
          bikegoesbaa

          I am enthusiastic about cars when they are enjoyable and interesting to operate.

          Grinding out a commute or a long-distance freeway trip is neither interesting nor enjoyable, so I am happy to leave that to a computer buried somewhere underneath the cupholder.

          People with money to hire a chauffeur for routine drives tend to do so, even if they are also car enthusiasts.

          I have a few fun and good-looking vehicles to use for recreational drives. I don’t care what my transportation pod looks like any more than I care what the 737 that I fly in looks like,; it’s just a tool to do a job.

          Besides, if you read the article it says that Google is getting out of the hardware business and instead wants to put their autonomous driving tech in cars from existing OEMs. So the koala car pictured goes away, and someday you can have whatever car you like but with an autonomous function.

          As for fun in a compact car, high school me learned that this is entirely doable with a willing companion. Anything with more room in the back than a 4-door Cavalier is good to go.

          • 0 avatar
            Pete Skimmel

            “As for fun in a compact car, high school me learned that this is entirely doable with a willing companion. Anything with more room in the back than a 4-door Cavalier is good to go”.

            That’s child’s play. Try the drivers seat of a Karmann Ghia. But then, that was a long time ago and we were much younger.

          • 0 avatar
            W126

            I know we’re just having a fun discussion, but I think with your last two sentences, you are implying that with a self-driving car there is no need to wear seat belts while the car is driving. Also performing sexual acts in a car driving down the open road where people of all ages could see you would be pretty weird to say the least.

          • 0 avatar
            bikegoesbaa

            I assume that it will be legally the same as a chauffeur-driven limousine. Why wouldn’t it be?

            You can’t distract or intoxicate the driver of an autonomous car, so the passengers may as well go nuts.

            So no to seatbelts, yes to open containers, and tinted windows for your privacy/enjoyment.

          • 0 avatar
            W126

            I’m not sure about the legal ramifications, but I think from a common sense and safety standpoint you would still want to wear seat belts in a moving car, as we have seen autonomous cars are not immune from getting into severe crashes e.g. another vehicle could still plow into you and airbags work better with restrained passengers. Also autonomous vehicles may still have a provision for the driver to take over if something is going wrong, in which case you still want to be sober and attentive. But I understand your perspective that autonomous vehicles can open the door to having more fun while not having to worry about driving.

          • 0 avatar
            bikegoesbaa

            I see what you mean, but it’s really not different than riding unrestrained in the back of a limo or RV. Probably not a fantastic idea but widely accepted. I’d certainly like to have the option.

            I imagine it will be like on an plane for most users, seatbelt on unless you’re doing something where it gets in the way.

            If you can get rid of the driver interface entirely that opens up a lot of opportunities to make a given cab size much more comfortable. I’m picturing seating like a train car or first/business class airplane.

            Even if I have to stay belted in, I know the drive I made at Thanksgiving would have been much more pleasant if I could have watched a movie then talked to Samson and taken a nap instead of having to remain hyper-vigilant while battling interstate traffic for 10 hours.

          • 0 avatar
            la834

            >> “As for fun in a compact car, high school me learned that this is
            >> entirely doable with a willing companion. Anything with more room in the back
            >> than a 4-door Cavalier is good to go”.

            > That’s child’s play. Try the drivers seat of a Karmann Ghia. But then,
            > that was a long time ago and we were much younger.

            Or as Elvis put it, there’s no room to rumba in a sports car

  • avatar
    orenwolf

    IMHO, Part of the problem here is auto folks trying to read the tea leaves of silicon valley and not getting it.

    It’s fairly normal for large SV corps spending gobs of money on moonshots. Pretty early on, Bezos realized that he didn’t need to design a better bookstore, he needed to design a better logistics operation. He started spending insane amounts on that goal, resulting in amazon’s same-day delivery today. He also realized he could resell his infrastructure, and now Amazon Web Services is one of the top, if not the top cloud provider today as well.

    Apple famously says “there are 200 no’s for every yes” – it’s possible the car project was just ultimately a “no”. It’s far better for them to realize that and discontinue their work (or postpone it for a few years, or whatever) than to release a half-baked product. Apple and Google (alphabet, whatever) are some of the few companies with the capital to burn to make these sorts of decisions.

    I don’t know, though, that we can ever really know why someone like Apple decided to not make their vehicle now (if, in fact, the reports are even true). We can assume it was the vehicle design, as the article suggests, or it may be something far more practical – like realizing the return on their investment was too many years away, margins were too thin, or – in apple’s case specifically – their unwillingness to compete in a product category where they don’t have a chance to be #1.

    Anyway, point is, we can assume all we want that the issue with Google/Alphabet here is the car – but IMHO they started that project with a specific goal in mind, and I don’t think they’re there yet. Until they are, they won’t be looking to make actual cars.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      one of the benefits of the SV/startup culture is the fast mover “try a bunch of things, and if something fails or doesn’t go anywhere don’t be afraid to drop it and move on.” That’s fine for *generating and incubating* ideas, but not when it comes time to actually bring it to market. especially not a market with such regulatory and safety implications like automotive.

      you really need both “sides” these days with automotive and the tech sector converging so rapidly. the “fast movers” need to come up with ideas and potential solutions and get the proof of concept up and running. then feed it over to the “implementation” side to iterate it to completion.

      otherwise you get too many “George Hotzes” who only do part of the work until it starts getting difficult or boring, then nothing gets finished.

      • 0 avatar
        orenwolf

        “you really need both “sides” these days with automotive and the tech sector converging so rapidly. the “fast movers” need to come up with ideas and potential solutions and get the proof of concept up and running. then feed it over to the “implementation” side to iterate it to completion.”

        Yep, totally agree – and that’s why I wouldn’t read Google/Apple not releasing as anything more than “It’s not ready/time/whatever yet”, instead of failure.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    They REALLY need to do something about the styling…

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Google pursues their myriad of boondoggles because Wall Street laps it up.

    “…and over here we have our perpetual motion design team.”

    “…we just opened a design center in Seattle to develop the fountain of youth.”

    “…and here we have our crack team committed to generating unlimited energy from sea water.”

    Google hasn’t proven they can make a dime from anything other than being the yellow pages of the internet.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure about the legal ramifications, but I think from a common sense and safety standpoint you would still want to wear seat belts in a moving car, as we have seen autonomous cars are not immune from getting into severe crashes e.g. another vehicle could still plow into you and airbags work better with restrained passengers. Also autonomous vehicles may still have a provision for the driver to take over if something is going wrong, in which case you still want to be sober and attentive. But I understand your perspective that autonomous vehicles can open the door to having more fun while not having to worry about driving.

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