Self-Driving Cars

Why Waymo boss says ‘self-driving’ needs to go

For a few moments, John Krafcik sounded more like a philosophy professor than the CEO of Waymo.

In an appearance during the Automotive News Shift Mobility Forum held in conjunction with CES last week, he offered an explanation for the company’s decision to stop using the phrase “self-driving” to describe autonomous-driving technology.

“What is the self?” he asked.

this was not the opening to an existential discussion, but “an actual question with some merit,” he said. Waymo had come to the conclusion the phrase didn’t accurately describe the technology the company is building.

“Is the self the car? If so, it doesn’t really do good service to the product we’re working on,” Krafcik said. “Our sole product at Waymo is a driver. So when you say ‘self-driving’, it takes Waymo out of the equation.”

That was not the only reason. Across the industry, too many companies have created confusion by using it to describe driver-assist technology, which still requires a licensed human driver who maintains responsibility for all vehicle operations.

Given some of the fatal crashes that have occurred involving human drivers who overrelied on their driver-assist systems, according to federal crash investigations, the language has become a life-and-death concern.

“Language really does matter,” Krafcik said. “We made the point that sometimes, the first name isn’t the name that sticks. The flying machines of 1903 eventually became airplanes, and I think we might have gotten the terminology here somewhat incorrect or imprecise.”

Among other Waymo developments that Krafcik detailed:

  • The Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicles upfitted with Waymo’s autonomous-driving system are beginning to be deployed in the company’s operational hub in the Phoenix area.
  • Customers who use the Waymo One ride-hailing service are happier now that human safety drivers have been removed, according to internal surveys.

“They prefer some of the advantages of having the space completely to themselves,” Krafcik said.

  • The company’s hardware development was delayed for pandemic-related reasons last year and on-road mileage accumulation was lower than anticipated. But Krafcik said both are now back on schedule.

One of the other significant milestones Waymo hit was the release of a detailed framework of its safety procedures and an analysis of 47 incidents in which the company’s vehicles made contact with objects.

The documents went beyond information Waymo and others submitted to federal regulators as part of the voluntary safety self-assessment reports some companies have opted to file.

While many companies are eager to showcase the competence of their systems by releasing footage from incident-free driving, Krafcik said that Waymo wanted to do the opposite essentially as a means of building trust.

“Demo videos are carefully curated and things we would naturally do to make the tech seem really good and competent, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “The problem is you are not showing the faults. … We showed every bad aspect of our driving. We shared all those bad outcomes. No one has done that before.”


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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