Google's Self-Driving Car Project Just Got a New Name and Mission


Google’s “little koala car” car has left the tree: The company announced on Tuesday it has moved its self-driving car project out of its famed “X” division, where long-shot ideas are pursued, and into its own company called Waymo (as in “a new way forward in mobility”) under the Alphabet corporate umbrella.

This is good news for anybody who wants another option to one day travel in an autonomous car. Google was way ahead of the current market (it started the project in 2009) in testing, but its progress — despite reliably published monthly reports — seemed to come slower as companies like Uber, nuTononmy, Tesla, and Ford brought their versions of autonomy to the streets.

It’s not that Google was moving slowly behind closed doors. Tuesday’s announcement made clear that the world’s first-ever fully autonomous trip without a test driver was made back on October 20, 2015 (read this lovely Wired story about it). More recently, the company says its autonomous cars traveled a billion miles in the last year in simulation mode and some 2 million miles in real-world driving. It’s reasonable to believe that the first autonomous trip around Austin back then was a use of technology that’s beyond what Uber is testing very publicly right now on the streets of Pittsburgh.

A visualization of Waymo's self-driving technology released on Tuesday.


Crucially, though, Google is going to get its technology out in the public, where rightly or wrongly, it’s going to be perceived as being behind Tesla (Autopilot 8.1 is coming any day now).

“One of our next steps will be to let people use fully self-driving cars to do everyday things like run errands or commute to work,” the company announced on Tuesday. “Over the long term we believe self-driving cars will be useful in ways the world has yet to imagine. Waymo will explore many different opportunities for self-driving technology.”

Waymo has the same CEO as the old company, John Krafcik, and the move was in the forecast this past summer.

His mission now is to make money off the technology that’s been in development for seven years. “Our goal is to commercialize this technology and build products that can help millions of people,” reads a statement released on Tuesday.

Before joining Google, Krafcik was the president and CEO at Hyundai Motor America. In a February interview with Industry Week, he addressed the adorable car being used in testing as a bit of “genius.”

“There was something that happened in November that really helped me understand the genius behind the design of our Google prototype. We were pulled over by a motorcycle cop for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone) in Mountain View. There was a photograph taken, and the sympathetic reaction from folks who saw that photograph, it was just classic: Policemen stopped our cute little koala car — what could it possibly have done wrong? That was the designer’s goal — to say, ‘Look, we are an accessible safe, thing. We don’t want to cause any harm. Give us an opportunity to build your trust in us.’”

So while Waymo appears to be headed in a direction where it sells technology to car companies that can use it, thankfully the little koala car seems to have been spared.

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