When Steve Mahan was a kid in the 1960s, his mother would sometimes wake him in the early hours of the morning to watch the hours of television coverage preceding the launch of the Mercury space missions. “We would hear about all of the preparations, all of the technology, everything that led up to these moments,” Mahan says. “And then we would count down ’till you finally got to zero and ignition, and one of those rockets begins bellowing fire and smoke, and slowly begins to creep away from the grapples. Then your thoughts always turn to the man in the capsule who’s being shot off into space.”
Now 63 and having lost his sight, Mahan has become one of those capsule-bound explorers. In October 2015, he became the first member of the public to ride in Google’s self-driving pod-like prototype, alone and on public roads. No steering wheel, no pedals, no human on board to step in should something go wrong.
Google engineers say that Mahan’s uneventful, ten-minute jaunt around Austin, Texas—which they talked about publicly for the first time today—was a key milestone on the road to the news they’re now announcing.
Starting today, the drive for autonomy is called Waymo, a standalone company under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. And that means it’s time to take the technology to market.
“We’re a self-driving car company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to get around,” says Waymo CEO John Krafcik. What that means, exactly, is still an open question: Krafcik mentioned ridesharing, trucking, logistics, even selling personal use vehicles to individual consumers.
Pushing Waymo into the real world is something of a catchup move for Google. The company once dominated the conversation about autonomy, insisting it was possible years before most companies took it seriously. But lately, that preeminence has faded. In the past year, Uber, Tesla, Baidu, Ford, and General Motors have announced aggressive plans to bring fully self-driving cars to market, with launch dates ranging from next year to 2021. Meanwhile, pressure to prove Google’s X projects could deliver on their promises mounted within the company, and a series of executives abandoned Google’s project, including longtime technical lead Chris Urmson, who was reportedly unhappy with Krafcik’s leadership.
As Uber and nuTonomy welcomed the public into self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Singapore, respectively, Google’s car team ignored questions about how and when it would commercialize its tech. Reports claimed it was scaling back its ambitions. The effort started to look like an also-ran. Launching Waymo, at least in the public eye, puts the robot-car division back in the race.
Leading the Blind
Google has long pitched self-driving cars as a way to cut down on traffic deaths (more than a million worldwide every year) and as a tool for those who cannot drive. It’s an altruistic spin on an industry whose potential value Boston Consulting Group pegs at $42 billion a year by 2025. So putting Steve Mahan in the car feels like a publicity stunt—look at our good deeds!—until you talk to the man.
Mahan started losing his vision at the age of 37, in 1990, due to a rare genetic disease called nanophthalmos. He was blind in one eye within a few years, and lost sight in the other after a laser treatment in 2004. (Doctors salvaged about 10 percent of his vision, but expect him to lose even that, eventually.) He stopped driving soon after, and for the past decade has relied on generous family and friends, and onerous paratransit services, to get from his suburban home in Morgan Hill, California, to anywhere else. Losing that independence, he says, was traumatic.
Hitting the green “go” button in the Google pod washed away some of that anguish, at least for a moment. “I was given the opportunity to be the man that I was before, for the time that I spent in that car,” Mahan says. “It just let me be a whole person again.”
Mahan had ridden in Google’s car twice before. In 2012, he rode with an engineer and police escort; in 2014, in a closed parking lot.2 Last year’s Austin expedition was his first solo trip, and the closest approximation to what an autonomous car service could offer. “This trip was about showing that we can actually take that capability and turn it into something that’s ready to go out into the real world,” says Nathaniel Fairfield, who runs Waymo’s planning, control, and routing team, and has been on board since the project launched.
By early 2015, Fairfield thought they were getting close: The cars were clocking full days at Google’s testing grounds without needing human takeovers. They had driven 1.2 million miles on public roads and could pull over for emergency vehicles. They could detect and brake for squirrels, and read hand signals from cops and construction workers. They knew when to honk politely (Just making sure you see me here) and when to blare it (You’re about to slam into me!). Then the team spent the next year putting another 800,000 miles on the fleet’s collective odometer, to fine tune everything. And it gave 10,000 rides to employees and “guests.”1
“Bringing the technology to that point has taught us an enormous amount about what it’s going to take to scale,” Fairfield says, “to the point where we can bring it to everyone, everywhere.”
Expand and Conquer
No matter the technology’s capability, the leap from the experimental phase to “everyone and everywhere” presents a list of labors to make Hercules shudder. Waymo needs to prove its self-driving system works in every situation, then get the public—and public officials—to accept that proof. Alphabet’s newest company must map every inch of every street it plans to travel, get that data onto its cars, and figure out how to keep those maps updated.
It has to drive down costs, especially for the car’s crucial space-mapping Lidar unit—a unit like that spinning KFC bucket on the roof can cost tens of thousands of dollars right now. Google’s making some of its own sensing hardware, in a bid to keep prices down. “You’ll have to make it cost effective,” says Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Groups North America automotive division, especially on hardware, an area where Google has had problems in the past.2
Perhaps the hardest part will be manufacturing the cars at scale and at cost, something precious few companies on the planet can handle. In May, Google partnered with Fiat Chrysler to put its autonomous tech into a fleet of Pacifica minivans. That deal could blossom into something more substantial, or the techies could hook up with another manufacturing master.
If Waymo can nail down all that, it gets to navigate the spaghetti bowl of regulations—city to state to country—most of which don’t even exist yet. Then it has to build out the technical infrastructure for a shared fleet, including how to dispatch and route its cars. There, Uber has a massive advantage: It has spent five years and 2 billion rides honing its system, steadily minimizing the time its drivers spend driving without paying passengers in the backseat. “This is not trivial,” says Jonathan Matus, CEO of mobile data analytics company Zendrive. “You need to have the right software.”
And once you’ve got the ground game? It’s just a matter of getting the hoi polloi to climb aboard.
Considering that litany of challenges, Waymo is, at best, halfway ready for its debut. It could take years before it’s all settled. Hopefully everyone watching Steve Mahan, alone in his capsule, can tolerate the wait.
1Story updated at 13:05 ET to include new information.
2Story updated at 16:00 ET to include correct year of Mahan’s second drive and Google’s sensing hardware approach.