Waymo

The Alphabet (Google) self-driving car unit is spinning out as a separate subsidiary within Alphabet, called Waymo.

This is not a surprise, because Google has been telegraphing this move for months.

That said, it’s not obvious what the practical implications of the move are.

TechCrunch speculates:

As an independent company under the Alphabet umbrella, Waymo will likely be less insulated from scrutiny regarding its progress and performance as a business, so its next steps in terms of partnership and sales or licensing model will be very interesting to watch.

It’s not obvious to me why that would be the case, unless Alphabet starts breaking out Waymo’s financial details in its annual reports. Alphabet hasn’t done that with other business units, though, so it seems unlikely they would do that with Waymo.

Autonomy and Regulation

Two headlines this weekend show why autonomous vehicles are a win for the legal profession:

  1. Driver Automation to Be Scrutinized in NTSB Probe of Tesla Crash

2. Google’s Self Driving Car Project Gets Its Own Chief Lawyer

I assume there is some relationship between these headlines.

Tesla is now managing separate investigations by the Florida Highway Patrol, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board, all stemming from a single accident resulting in one fatality.

That type of scrutiny requires a lot of lawyers.

Of course, if self-driving cars prove to be far safer than human-driven vehicles, that would create an offsetting loss for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

What Google Car Drivers See

The Merc has a fun interview with Google Car Test Driver Stephanie Vargas. She’s been working at Google as a contractor since at least 2011, when she was on the Maps team and saw one of the early self-driving car prototypes.

Q: What are some dangers your cars have confronted?

A: A mattress has fallen from the back of a truck. Children running in the road after balls. People (on skateboards) skitching on vehicles, holding on, like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.” Or coffining — people lie on their backs on skateboards and go between traffic. Imagine someone lying in a coffin, someone assuming the same position on a skateboard and then riding down the street. They ride between vehicles or under vehicles. It’s pretty death-defying. It’s actually pretty fun. I used to do it as a kid in my parents’ driveway. I’m not condoning that behavior. But very fun. Don’t do it in live traffic.

Yikes! Read the whole thing.

Michigan-Bound

John Krafcik, the CEO of Google’s self-driving car subsidiary, just announced that Google is opening a large facility in Novi, Michigan.

This makes sense for the same reasons that almost all car manufacturers now have Silicon Valley offices. A wide array of people and companies that Google would like to work with are Michigan-based.

Amid all the speculation of whether Detroit or Silicon Valley will win the car war, it’s worth considering that maybe they’re both around for the long haul. Detroit could remain the manufacturing center of America, with Silicon Valley becoming a center of automotive software development. A lot of companies would maintain facilities in both areas.

The major exception to this trend is Tesla. As far as I know, Tesla does not have a large Michigan presence. That raises the question of how well Tesla can collaborate with all of the partners that Google is hoping to reach by being in Michigan themselves.

Open Relationship

Google and FCA might be making minivans together, but they’re still seeing other people.

“This is just FCA and Google building 100 cars together,” Google self-driving car chief executive John Krafcik said in an interview on the sidelines of an energy conference in Washington.

“We’re still talking to a lot of different automakers,” he added. “We’ve been very open about what the technology is and the problem we want to solve together. Solving this problem is going to require a lot of partnership.”

That’s either a pretty good headfake or a remarkably unenthusiastic partnership endorsement.

Recall my earlier post that this partnership seems like a minor win for Google and even less promising for FCA.

Land Grab

A major property manager just let slip that both Apple and Google are looking for large spaces, specifically for their autonomous vehicle efforts.

The comments come from Victor Coleman, the CEO of Hudson Pacific Properties, which is apparently a major Bay Area landlord.

The news is a little bit more revelatory for Apple, whose autonomous vehicle efforts have been mysterious to the point that many people (or least I) wonder whether Apple is making any headway.

“We’re seeing the Toyotas of the world, the Teslas of the world, BMWs, Mercedes. Ford now is out in the marketplace looking for space,” he said on the landlord’s quarterly investor call. “I haven’t even mentioned the 400,000 square feet that Google’s looking to take down and the 800,000 square feet that Apple’s looking to take down for their autonomous cars as well.”

That Google is looking for major space isn’t so surprising, given how public they have been about moving their AV team out from under the X umbrella.

The Chrysler-Google Car

The huge news today in the self-driving car world is that Chrysler and Google have inked a deal to build self-driving cars together.

Or maybe not quite. The New York Times reports that, “Google said it would expand its testing of autonomous vehicles by installing its technology in a fleet of minivans made by Fiat Chrysler.”

That quote sounds more mundane.

This raises a couple of horse-race questions and one larger ecosystem question.

How much does this help Google?

It helps Google.

I’m not sure that Chrysler is specifically a great fit, nor am I sure that they’re a poor fit. It seems like if it weren’t Chrysler, it would be another car company. Perhaps partnering with an American-based manufacturer will help Google politically.

That said, this is a step forward, but maybe not a giant leap. 100 test vehicles is a great start, but it’s still a long way from a production model sold to consumers.

How much does this help Chrysler?

Hopefully it helps Chrysler.

FCA, as the company is known, has had less autonomous vehicle activity underway than many other manufacturers, so this puts them in the game.

But my mind immediately makes the comparison to mobile phone manufacturers, and here the record is not so promising. HTC was the first company to use Google software on its phones, and since then LG has produced Google’s Nexus line. In neither case has the Google partnership set the company up for huge success. Rather, Samsung has dominated the Android market.

How much does this help move forward autonomous vehicle technology?

Time will tell, but I view this as incremental, so far. If Google and Chrysler are able to work together mass-produce Level 4 autonomous vehicles on an accelerated schedule, that would be amazing.

But that’s a big if and so far it looks like small steps.

Google’s Self-Driving Cars Graduate from X

Astro Teller, the head of Google X, says that the self-driving car project may be ready to graduate from X.

The key takeaway here is apparently that the unit is ready to make money and stand on its own two feet, financially.

That, of course, raises the question of how the unit will make money.

The most likely scenario seems to be more-or-less direct competition with Uber. The unit might launch ride-sharing services first on geo-fenced areas such as college campuses, and grow out from there.