Google's self-driving car program is now Waymo: what does that mean, exactly?

December 14, 2016

Almost exactly one year ago, we reported that Google's parent company, Alphabet, planned to spin off Google's self-driving car program in 2016. With about two weeks to go on the calendar, Alphabet has finally announced that it's doing just that.

The new company is called Waymo, which could mean:

  • Way mo' money for investors!
  • Way mo' competition for traditional automakers!
  • Way mo' confusion for folks who will still think of it as "Google's self-driving car program"!
  • Every other domain name was taken, so we're stuck with "Waymo"!

Or maybe just "Waymobility", as we see at the end of the demo video embedded above. Take your pick.

What does it all mean?

Pushing Waymo out from the nest of Google's research lab X and into a proper Alphabet-owned company says a lot about Waymo itself and about Alphabet's view of self-driving technology.

For starters, it suggests what many of us already knew--namely, that autonomous software has crossed a tipping point. No longer the wacky dream it might've been when Google engineers first began tinkering with it in 2009, self-driving technology is now very, very real. Nearly every major automaker has announced plans to roll out autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles in the near future, and Alphabet/Google/Waymo wants to be a part of that revolution.

In order to do that, Waymo will need its own corporate structure, its own dedicated staff, its own funding, and so on. Making Waymo an entity unto itself isn't just a sign that Alphabet believes the company is mature enough to stand on its own; it's a way of setting up Waymo for growth and success.

It's also a way of firewalling the project, should it fail. Google has launched and shuttered more projects than we can count, which is frankly admirable. It shows that Google is willing to try bold, new things, to move ahead. It follows the same mantra as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has famously said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

However, failure can have lots of negative effects on a company's bottom line--especially in a case like Waymo's. For example, though the software has been used in more than a million miles of on-road tests, there's always a miniscule chance that it could crash (literally and metaphorically). If that were to happen, it could generate massive lawsuits, since Google is one of several companies that believes it's at fault when self-driving system fail.

Failure can also have a negative impact on a company's image. By removing Waymo from the Google brand, Alphabet is trying to insulate its core company from the possibility--no matter how slim--of bad press.

What's next?

Now, it's up to Waymo to sink or swim. As we've noted before, swimming will involve partnering with automakers to deploy its autonomous technology. (Google has made it pretty clear that it doesn't plan to produce cars of its own--at least not yet.) 

One of those partners is likely to be Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, with whom Google/Waymo worked on select 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids. Given FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne's interest in further match-ups with Waymo, there could be much more of that down the line.

For more on this story, visit Motor Authority.

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