Nov 15, 2019 - Technology

Waymo's progress on AVs seems reminiscent of Wright brothers

Illustration of a old-time photograph of a self-driving car driving across a dessert landscape

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A leading AV developer this week said self-driving cars just quietly had their "Kitty Hawk moment."

The big picture: It was a surprising assertion as the hype around self-driving cars has calmed, and most companies are recalibrating their plans for AVs. But in his optimistic blog post, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron wrote Waymo's recent expansion of "rider-only" taxi service for early adopters near Phoenix, Ariz. puts us in a "post-driverless world."

  • Citing a journalist's first-hand account of the experience, Cameron called it a "monumental achievement" that "bears comparison with the great transportation innovations through time: the birth of flight, rail, the automobile or the first crossing of the oceans."

If you ask Waymo, the company might say their Kitty Hawk moment occurred back in 2015, when they gave a visually impaired man the first ride in an AV. Or in 2017, when they demonstrated their fully driverless capabilities on YouTube.

Orville and Wilbur Wright didn't have the internet to spread the news in 1903 after Wilbur flew their fixed-wing plane for 59 seconds, at 852 feet, near the outer banks of North Carolina.

  • The press was skeptical, even two years later, when they flew another plane — "a machine of practical utility" — for a full 40 minutes, says Peter Jakab, chief curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
  • The Wright brothers buckled down and further developed their aircraft, finally achieving fame in 1908, but it wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s that safe, reliable, commercial air transportation was available to the public, Jakab tells Axios.

Fast forward: As with aviation or the spread of electricity (which took 30 years to hit 70% of U.S. households), the shift to autonomy will occur gradually, block by block and city by city.

  • We hear it consistently from virtually every CEO Axios has interviewed, including Argo AI's Bryan Salesky, Waymo's John Krafcik, Cruise's Dan Ammann and Uber's Dara Khosrowshahi.
  • The only exception is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who says his company will have one million self-driving cars on the road by next year.

What to watch: The challenge is proving tougher than expected, but now that Waymo has shown self-driving technology is possible in some circumstances, the focus is shifting to commercialization.

  • "The industry now has to figure out how to scale this technology in a way that is as cost-effective and reliable as running water," Cameron tells Axios in an interview.
  • Venture capital will gravitate toward those with the best business models, and a shakeout will occur.
  • Cameron predicts fewer than 20% of the 64 companies licensed to test AVs in California will survive, while Ammann says it could be just a couple.

Of note: Amid all the pessimism and recalibrated plans, Cameron, whose company is working on robotaxis for retirement communities, says he just felt the urge this week to pause and celebrate a competitor's accomplishment.

  • "It just felt like it needed to be noted."

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