Waymo CEO John Krafcik explains why a parking lot is one of the most difficult environments for a self-driving car
- Since John Krafcik became the CEO of Waymo in 2015, the company has launched the first commercial, autonomous ride-hailing service in the United States.
- As Waymo's ambitions grow, it still has to reckon with the obsessive attention to detail autonomous vehicles require.
- Self-driving cars must be able to handle complex environments like parking lots.
- Parking lots are challenging because they feature cars and pedestrians moving in unpredictable patterns and don't have road markings, Krafcik said.
- Krafcik was named to Business Insider's list of the 100 people transforming business.
- See the full list of the 100 people transforming business here.
Since John Krafcik became the CEO of Google's self-driving car project, now called Waymo, in 2015, the company has achieved two significant milestones.
The first came in 2016, when the company gave the first ride in a fully self-driving vehicle on public roads in Austin, Texas. The second followed in 2018, when Waymo launched Waymo One - the first commercial, autonomous ride-hailing service in the United States - in parts of Arizona.Waymo One has positioned the company as the leader in the autonomous-driving industry, according to the research and consulting firm Navigant Research, which in a 2019 report ranked Waymo first among companies developing self-driving technology in strategy and execution. And according to a report Waymo submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicle, its safety drivers had to manually take over their test cars, because of safety concerns, about once every 11,000 miles in 2018 - the best rate of any company testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California.
Increasing the scale of its business is still a priority for Waymo, but so is expanding its scope into trucks, personal vehicles, and hardware sales. The company has a self-driving truck unit, known internally as Husky, and said in March that it would begin selling lidar sensors to companies that don't compete with Waymo One.
"Anything that has wheels and moves along the surface of the earth is something that we, in the future, could imagine being driven by Waymo," Krafcik said.
Attention to detail is essential
As Waymo's ambitions grow, it still has to reckon with the obsessive attention to detail autonomous vehicles require. Self-driving cars must be able to handle small details in complex environments, like parking lots, which are challenging because they feature cars and pedestrians moving in unpredictable patterns and don't have road markings, Krafcik said.
Beyond mastering technical details, Waymo also has to anticipate the preferences of its customers. The company had thought passengers who were traveling to a grocery store, for example, would want to be picked up where they were dropped off - at the front door. But the front door is a major source of foot-traffic at grocery stores, and passengers told Waymo that they felt self-conscious loading bags into a car in such a busy area."We rarely had thought about very specific things like: What happens when one of our riders wants to go to the Albertsons grocery store and get dropped off, and then later be picked up with six bags of groceries?" Krafcik said. "It wasn't obvious."
Krafcik said Waymo has improved the performance of its vehicles in parking lots, citing the example as a reason why the company is ahead of its competitors.
"I haven't heard other self-driving car companies talk about this," Krafcik said.
But Waymo is not seeking to capitalize on its first-mover advantage at all costs. Safety is a priority, Krafcik said, a point the company emphasizes to new employees.
"We have to be safe. We have to be extremely careful and methodical in our approach in how we go to market, but we also have to be urgent, because the world is waiting."
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