Google has just released its autonomous car project as a separate company called Waymo, operating under Alphabet. This move has been in progress for at least a year, and it represents the maturation of the company’s interests in this technology. From an AI standpoint, it means that the new company will have to turn a profit. It also means that it is likely to pursue automotive industry partnerships in its drive toward a completely autonomous vehicle rather than attempting to develop all facets of the technology itself.
About a year ago, John Krafcik, an ex-Hyundai North America executive, was put in charge of the project, and he continues CEO of Waymo. During his tenure, there was a shakeup of engineers and executives, several of whom went on to create AI startups such as Otto (now acquired by Uber), Nuro, and an as-yet-unnamed autonomous vehicle company from former project head Chris Urmson, who left in August.
As a preface to the move, Krafcik blogged:
Waymo may be a new company, but we’re building on advanced self-driving technology developed over many years at Google. On October 20, 2015, we completed the world’s first fully-self driven car ride. Steve Mahan rode alone in one of our prototype vehicles, cruising through Austin’s suburbs. Steve is legally blind, so our sensors and software were his chauffeur. His route reflected the way millions of people could use a self-driving car in everyday life: riding from a park to a doctor’s office and through typical neighborhoods.
Google’s autonomous vehicles have the experience of millions of driving miles under the hood, and this has given the company an advantage. But now, as competition grows fiercer, it is time to make the technology into a product, and find a niche for it that can fit Google’s needs and capabilities. Building cars is difficult, as other tech companies, such as Apple, have discovered. And Tesla has early mover advantage in pursuing a high tech/high visibility approach to every aspect of personal transportation.
The Google project had been gradually extending its partnerships in pursuit of autonomy through a range of strategic hookups, such as a partnership with Fiat Chrysler that has recently morphed into a ride-sharing service using semi-autonomous Pacifica vans, to be available by the end of 2017.
It is clear that Autonomy is becoming more important as a distinct branch of AI, fueled by billions of research dollars and development by an increasing number of automobile and transportation companies, software developers, and niche-market startups. Autonomy has a set of unique problems, as we explored in our recent Autonomy Infographic. As a digital technology, the concepts developed can easily be stretched to new fields, and combined with evolving capabilities in other fields. Transportation and logistics are obvious uses, but autonomous robots will bring whole new issues to the fore as we struggle to mold society to its autonomous robotic future.