Has Robotaxi Run Out of Road?

Article By : Colin Barnden

The robotaxi concept has run out of road. There is nothing more to this idea than a modern-day version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and the industry leaders stand before us naked...

I’ll say it first: Robotaxis don’t work. See how easy that was? Now say it with me: Robotaxis. Don’t. Work. Great, and now you on your own. Well done, I knew you could do it.

The robotaxi concept has run out of road. There is nothing more to this idea than a modern-day version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and the industry leaders stand before us naked. Robotaxis don’t work, but don’t hear it from me, hear it from Waymo. Driverless cars with human baby-sitters for the foreseeable future? Good luck making a viable business out of that.

I get a lot of entertainment out of playing with the name Waymo. There’s been Waymom , Waymonster and now Whymo. Which sounds to me a lot like a famous brand of hover mower, although they actually work. Let’s hear all about the Waymo journey direct from CEO John Krafcik, speaking at the Frankfurt Auto Show last September.

What did we learn? That Waymo is not Google, it is not a car company, and it is not a self-driving car company. Okay, any clearer for that? No, me neither. What else did we learn? That Waymo is a technology company, that it is building the World’s Most Experienced Driver called the Waymo Driver, and that it has been hard at work for the last ten years putting the Waymo Driver through the toughest and longest driving test.

Inspiring? Hardly. Why? That’s because after more than ten years of R&D the product does not work. Although there is a lot of awesome technology here, there’s nothing that is actually useful. If you want useful, forget John. We need Steve.

January 9, 2007
You may not recognize the date, but you will recognize the event because it changed the tech industry forever. Here is Steve Jobs giving the 2007 Macworld keynote and the launch of iPhone.

The full video lasts an hour and forty-five minutes and I’d forgotten how mesmerizing Steve was and also what a seminal moment the iPhone launch was. These are my three takeaways from the presentation:

  • Steve explained clearly the limitations of existing smartphones. The manufacturers shown in the presentation (Motorola, Blackberry, Palm and Nokia) all died that day.
  • He demonstrated live what iPhone could do. Watch the audience reaction. They understood. They got it. Instantly.
  • He demonstrated a working product that, you know, worked.

So, what does Steve have to do with Waymo? Let’s check out some of their latest announcements, for example that the next-generation self-driving system can “see” a stop sign 500 meters away. Better radar, more cameras, and a more powerful lidar. Are you still with me, or did your thoughts wander back to Steve?

Are you whooping with delight that the latest hardware suite has a vision system with 29 cameras, which provides different perspectives of the road with overlapping fields of view? Or that it has redesigned the architecture, outputs and signal processing capabilities of its radar to make it better suited for the requirements of a self-driving car?

I don’t know about you, but I’m losing the will to live reading about all this dry tech stuff, and I’m a tech analyst. Let’s give up and watch some more of the interesting guy.

Here it comes

The video is Steve at Apple’s 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference. He explains:

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it. [That means] not starting with let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and figure out how we are going to market it.

That is why Apple’s valuation is now approaching $2 trillion. Steve also talked about technology product development, citing the Apple LaserWriter printer as an example:

I remember with the LaserWriter there was awesome technology in that box. I remember seeing the first printout come out of it and just picking it up and looking at it and thinking “we can sell this”. You don’t have to know anything about what is in that box, all we have to do it hold this up and say “Do you want this?” People went “whoa, yes.”

Which is precisely what we saw in the video of the iPhone launch. The audience just went “whoa, yes.”

Steve has told us everything about where Waymo went wrong: More than ten years in, it is only now looking beyond the technology to the customer experience. Matthew Schwall, Waymo’s head of field safety, said “Fundamentally, in order to really convince the public and be compelling, what we need is to be simple.” Correct, and guess which tech legend is famous for saying “Simple is hard”? Steve.

Schwall also said “The public has a hard time trusting what they don’t understand.” Whoa, no, I disagree. For example, the public doesn’t have a hard time trusting Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) because they don’t understand it. They have a hard time trusting it because two Boeing 737 Max aircraft with MCAS crashed, 346 lives were lost, and regulators responded by grounding the entire fleet.

I would argue that we aren’t looking at a trust or safety issue at all, that the public actually understands the current limitations of Waymo’s technology precisely, but isn’t as enamored with the World’s Most Experienced Driver as Waymo had expected. In other words, for many people beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, robotaxis are about as interesting as Google Glass.

I don’t dispute that Waymo has awesome technology, but it has focused on a go-to-market strategy of robotaxis and autonomous trucks, which are the two sectors with the longest development times and come with the most challenging legal and liability issues. Driverless cars and trucks with human baby-sitters cannot become a viable business and Waymo cannot raise money indefinitely. Put simply, they developed the wrong products and now can’t rewind, they’ve gone too far.

You’ll have to decide the outcome for yourself, but my view is that Waymo’s robotaxi ambitions are dead. I see the application of its technology in last-mile goods AVs which is why I think Waymo’s final destination is Amazon.

Who could have guessed that Steve’s videos would kill the robocar star? If you like, join The Buggles and sing it from 1 minute 55 seconds in.

…Video killed the robocar star

Video killed the robocar star

In my mind and in my car

They can’t rewind they’ve gone too far

Steve Jobs came and broke John’s heart

Put the blame on to lidar…

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