After Google’s parent company Alphabet recently spun-off its self-driving car unit into a new brand called Waymo, there’s been some amount of speculation around whether or not the newly formed company will actually make their own cars under the Waymo branding.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik has already made it clear that the company’s plan isn’t to make better cars, but to make better drivers. It’s the tech mobility behind the concept of self-driving cars that they want to champion. In other words, it’s the self-driving part, not the cars part, that they have their focus on.
Why does this make a lot of sense?
Most people aren’t really aware of how capital-intensive it is to be in the car manufacturing space. Tesla knows this now after years of being unprofitable. GM and Ford have known this for a hundred years. It’s not that easy to R&D, manufacture, assemble, produce and market automobiles. It’s a tight industry that is capital- and labor-intensive, and entirely dependent on vagaries of the economy for its sustenance.
What Waymo is trying to accomplish goes beyond cars. It’s the technology the drives cars they’re interested in. Literally. That’s what Apple is interested in as well, and it’s going to be extremely difficult for these companies to quickly step into manufacturing and start turning a profit in a matter of a couple of years.
That said, it doesn’t mean that car makers have an edge over technology companies when it comes to self-driving cars. The level of automobile design and engineering expertise required to make a car autonomous is actually far lower than that required to make it driverless. The integrations between the “autonomous” part and the “car” part can be as basic as you need it to be. Essentially, you only need control over the steering system, the powertrain and the braking system to make a self-driving car.
Even then, if you have a partner like Ford or Volvo, like Uber does, for example, even that part’s taken care of. What’s left is essentially the technology and hardware underlying autonomous driving technology. And even the hardware isn’t something you need to make.
As such, what it boils down to is software. That’s all self-driving cars have ever been about. Get the right software and you can implement it on anything from a go-kart to a big-rig truck.
And it’s this software that’s under evolution – not the cars, and certainly not the sensors and cameras that make up the components of such a system, although those will improve over time as well in terms of sensitivity, responsiveness, range and so on.
As long as companies commit themselves to developing, refining and fine-tuning their software for thousands upon thousands of driving scenarios that any experienced driver can handle, fully autonomous driving technology is inevitable.
Seen from that perspective, you’ll also notice that automakers are now at a distinct disadvantage. They don’t have the developer talent that large tech companies can leverage; they don’t have the cloud environments or the hyper-scale computing expertise or resources to handle a bajillion server calls per second from a massive fleet of vehicles; and they don’t have the AI capability to make split-second decisions that a trained human brain makes with the greatest of ease.
GM might look like it’s made a sudden leap by committing to mass-produce self-driving Chevy Bolts, for example, but at the end of the day, it’s the companies with the most developed AI technologies, the greatest cloud resources and the greatest speed of action in terms of executing their plans that will carry away the honors.
Ten years from now, all the car manufacturers might have self-driving cars in their production lines, but the dominant technologies will be proprietary ones from a handful of what are essentially software companies – large and small. I have no idea who that might be because a major disruption/breakthrough could come from anywhere, but I am absolutely certain that this is the where the future of truly autonomous vehicles lies.
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