Waymo’s slow pace in Arizona opens U.S. robotaxi race

CHANDLER, Ariz., Dec. 8 (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Waymo risks losing its lead in the U.S. race to prove robotics is a viable business because it sticks to one service limited and to competitors backed by automakers close to their own launches.

Companies like Argo AI from Ford Motor Co (FN) and Cruise from General Motors Co (GM.N) vie for billions of dollars in funding needed to automate driving using expensive artificial intelligence software and sensors .

Waymo led the way. In the nation’s first and only fully driverless taxi service, Waymo has driven thousands of people since it opened east of Phoenix a year ago to anyone who downloads its rideshare app. And since August, hundreds of people in San Francisco have tested taxis with security drivers on board. Read more

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But Waymo lacks investment from a major automaker, which analysts say could hamper efforts to expand its fleet.

Waymo’s plans announced in 2018 to purchase up to 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace SUVs did not materialize. A large order of cameras to give eyes to its vehicles has been reduced, a person familiar with the matter said. Partnership talks in the past with automaker Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) have also failed, another source said.

Waymo’s Arizona rideshare service hasn’t expanded beyond the suburbs. He inquired about permission to travel to Phoenix Airport in 2018, but did not pursue the process at all or approach San Francisco Airport, according to government documents obtained by Reuters.

Waymo cars still have lessons to learn. Some Arizona shopping mall depots seen by Reuters have blocked access to disabled parking spaces for a few minutes, in what disability advocates have described as a potential violation of the law.

Raj Rajkumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said high personnel costs could also be contributing to Waymo’s slow expansion. Arizona runners told Reuters that in-person support or remote monitoring teams had to redirect vehicles crippled by, among other things, cargo pallets, a wandering stop sign and paving equipment. Read more

Waymo takes a different point of view.

Partnerships with multiple automakers around the world, rather than the investment of just one, serve what he describes as unprecedented ambitions in trucking, grocery delivery and more. Waymo said it has met all production targets and introduced hundreds of I-Pace crossovers.

“It would make little sense to bet on an individual OEM (equipment maker) – it would increase our risk and give us fewer future paths to market,” the company said. “The future of autonomy goes well beyond VTC services.”

Speaking at Reuters Next last week, Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana said the company was in “a solid phase of not only developing technology, but also developing business opportunities.” Read more

“There is a lot to do the first time around,” she said. “Then you create a playbook and it’s much easier to replicate it in future cities. “

Waymo recently started testing in downtown Phoenix, but with no runners. He said staff costs are not a big factor in the plans and his system tries to avoid stopping in disabled parking spaces.

Cruise aims to be cleared next year for a driverless offer in the middle of the night in San Francisco, and Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) chief executive Elon Musk continues to promise fully self-driving cars. Argo says he will partner with Lyft to open a robotaxis in Miami ahead of the New Year – with a security driver in attendance.

All the companies have missed targets or reduction plans, but some observers see a change in Waymo’s stance.

“Waymo is catching up,” said Grayson Brulte, president of autonomous mobility consultancy Brulte & Co.


Born in 2009 as a project within Google, Waymo has raised $ 5.75 billion in funding since 2020.

Some analysts have viewed the resignations this year of former CEO John Krafcik and other executives as a sign of Alphabet management’s disappointment at slow progress, a charge Waymo denies. Krafcik remains an advisor.

Waymo’s strategy prioritizes security and the integration of comments. He avoided a major accident, proof of his caution.

Hang Zhao, assistant professor at Tsinghua University and former Waymo scientist, said that while it requires more engineers, Waymo has taken a safe approach to solving AI problems, especially unlike Tesla’s tactics. . Read more

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Swamy Kotagiri, managing director of investor Waymo and auto industry supplier Magna International Inc (MG.TO), told analysts in July that he predicted “a long road” for fully autonomous cars, adding that even by 2030, only “a small number” will be produced.

Waymo’s dizzying progress and optimism catalyzed the industry, with then-boss Chris Urmson saying in 2015 that he expected his son to rely on autonomous vehicles in 2020.

Urmson’s new company Aurora, backed by major automakers, is now targeting 2024 to market self-driving rides. But his earlier vision came true, just barely. In Chandler, the hub of Waymo’s business activities, Intel Corp engineer John Mitkowski is among the residents who commute to work in a driverless minibus daily.

“Come in, go,” Mitkowski said of his 3 mile, $ 8 Waymo trip each way.

But he needs alternatives when he takes a plane or goes to a nearby university or some of his favorite golf courses. His wife is too scared to get on a robotaxi and his daughter, fresh out of college, chooses the comfort of her car.

Waymo’s limited supply in Arizona has resulted in 30-minute waits this year, according to customer Jordan Ranous, who turned to the Lyft rideshare service, where dinner rides cost $ 4 more for a pickup. 26 minutes earlier.

The majority of people who open Waymo’s app wait less than 10 minutes and traffic increases, the company said.

Mawakana, half a year in her high role, said she has learned not to estimate deadlines. She declined to predict when Waymo would ditch safety drivers in San Francisco or could demonstrate profitability.

“What we’ve learned is that it’s not as important,” she said of the forecast.

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Reporting by Paresh Dave and Hyunjoo Jin in Chandler, Arizona; Additional reporting by Jane Lee Editing by Nick Zieminski and Peter Henderson

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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