Google’s self-driving car project is no longer just one of the many moonshot ideas of the Google X advanced research skunk works as it has been transformed into a standalone business unit under the Alphabet umbrella. (Alphabet is the parent company of Google and its related businesses.)
As part of the transformation the project has received the new name Waymo, which is meant to stand for “A new way forward in mobility,” and like any business it will have to start earning profits. Heading Waymo is automotive industry veteran John Krafcik who only joined Google in 2015.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Krafcik said self-driving technology was at an “inflection point” and that the establishing of Waymo as a standalone business unit shows that the technology is “close” to being delivered.
Waymo is described as a self-driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around. That means we’re unlikely to see Waymo launch its own car but rather self-driving technology and new mobility solutions. For example, in May, Google announced that it will install its self-driving technology in a fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacificas which could potentially be used to form a driverless taxi service run by Waymo.
Waymo may be a new business but it’s really only a new name for Google’s self-driving car project established in 2009. Since that time, Google’s various prototypes, the latest of which is devoid of a steering wheel and pedals, have spent the equivalent of 300 years of driving time on the road.
Google’s self-driving car project was one of the early leaders in the field, having unveiled its first fully self-driving prototype in 2014. However, since then some senior staff including former head Chris Urmson have left and rivals such as Uber, Tesla [NSDQ:TSLA], nuTonomy and Nvidia have made further progresses.
To mark its launch, Waymo released a video of one of its self-driving prototypes providing Steve Mahan, former CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, with a ride in a suburban road in Austin, Texas. The event took place in October 2015 and is the first self-driving car ride on public roads, navigating through everyday traffic with no steering wheel, no pedals, and no test driver to takeover in an emergency.
Waymo’s self-driving technology relies on sensors and software that are designed to detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more from a distance of up to two football fields away in all directions. It's so sophisticated it can even recognize if a cyclist’s arm is extended to indicate a turn.