It’s not a secret that Google has ambitions to become a hardware
The tech giant unveiled a suite of new hardware products in the fall,
like its first smartphone, the Google Pixel, and connected
speaker, the Google Home.
And now the company is taking the same approach with self-driving
cars. Waymo, the self-driving-car company run under Google’s
parent company Alphabet, announced this week that it will
manufacture an entire suite of sensors
That means all the sensors that self-driving cars rely on –
radar, lidar, cameras – are all being designed and manufactured
at Google where they will be integrated to work together as an
entire self-driving-hardware suite.
In many ways, it’s a brilliant move by Waymo to reclaim its
position as a leader in the self-driving-car space, though some
The long road to market
There’s never really been a question whether Waymo was a
competitor when it came to self-driving-car software. Its cars
have driven nearly 2.5 million miles autonomously – the
equivalent of 300 years of human driving experience, according to
Where Waymo has run into problems is figuring out a way to turn
its self-driving-car moonshot into an actual marketable product.
Waymo originally had a grandiose vision to produce a fully
driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals. Although some
engineers on the project pushed Waymo to pursue partial autonomy
like Tesla to start bringing the tech to market, Google
co-founder Larry Page has reportedly been opposed to taking that
approach, Bloomberg reported.
But slow progress on the self-driving-car project prompted
several executive departures. Chris Urmson,
the CTO of Google’s self-driving-car unit before it became Waymo,
left in August. He was one of several executive departures
a??Anthony Levandowski, a cofounder of the Google self-driving-car
project, left to start self-driving-truck startup Otto, which is
now owned by Uber.
During his time at Google, Urmson lobbied the Senate to create
regulations that would allow self-driving cars without a steering
wheel or pedals to drive on public roads.
While all this was going on, competition continued to mount, most
notably from Uber. Uber launched a pilot program for its
self-driving cars in Pittsburgh in September, and has since
launched its second one in Arizona.
But Waymo recently made a series of smart moves to avoid getting
eclipsed by the competition. It decided to keep driver controls
in its cars and expanded its partnership with Fiat Chrysler.
Waymo will begin testing self-driving Chrysler minivans in
Arizona and California by the end of January.
Waymo is also in talks with Honda about creating a fleet of
Couple that with Waymo’s recent announcement about building
self-driving tech entirely in house, you can start to see how
Alphabet is becoming a serious competitor in the autonomous space
Waymo says designing all of its hardware in-house has slashed
costs because all of the sensors are designed to work together
(as opposed to combining different off-the-shelf parts to work
together). So far, Waymo has reduced the price of lidar by over
90% to roughly $7,500, and said the price will continue to drop
as the technology scales.
Essentially, Waymo has created a self-driving ecosystem (hardware and software) that it can integrate into cars easily
through partnerships with automakers. After a summer of executive
departures, Waymo has made serious strides in putting together a
clear path to market.
But we will still need to wait and see if Waymo’s approach will
play out accordingly. Alphabet as a whole may be making moves to
become more of a hardware company, but hardware has not typically been its strength.
We have yet to see how well Waymo’s hardware ecosystem performs
with its software, as the Chrysler minivans will be the first
vehicles outfitted with the system. Waymo also has yet to launch
a public demo of its self-driving cars, something BMW, Volvo, and
Uber will all do in 2017.
Still, it looks like Waymo has a much better plan to get to
market than it did just two months ago.