Waymo has been trialing robotaxis in parts of Phoenix, Arizona, for a few years, and in San Francisco since August 2021. The big question has been: How scalable is this? How much will it take Waymo to roll out to dozens of large cities — and actually serve the whole metro areas (not just the easiest corners of the metro areas)? I expect we’ll get some much better insight into this in 2022, but we already have a ray of sunlight or two.
In November, Waymo announced it had started mapping New York City (NYC) streets. I’ve also seen rumor that it has been preparing a possible launch in Paris, but that may just refer to Renault and Waymo’s exploration of the idea in 2019, which may well have gone nowhere and died. Nonetheless, the big question is: Is 2022 going to be the real launch of Waymo robotaxis?
On top of the developments above, Waymo also recently partnered with Chinese automotive giant Geely, which owns Volvo Cars. In an announcement about the new partnership, Waymo wrote, “Over years to come, we’ll integrate our Waymo Driver into the transportation-as-a-service (TaaS)-optimized Zeekr vehicle designed to prioritize the comfort, convenience, and preferences of Waymo One riders. This rider-first vehicle features a flat floor for more accessible entry, easy ingress and egress thanks to a B-pillarless design, low step-in height, generous head and legroom, and fully adjustable seats.
“While ensuring a level of safety consistent with U.S. federal vehicle standards — our Waymo One riders will one day experience an interior without steering wheel and pedals, and with plenty of headroom, leg room and reclining seats, screens and chargers within arm’s reach, and an easy to configure and comfortable vehicle cabin. We’ll begin to introduce these all electric, rider-first, fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads within our Waymo One fleet in the years to come.”
Why invest in a whole new vehicle body and platform if Waymo isn’t getting ready to expand much more quickly?
Interestingly, despite Geely being a Chinese company and Volvo Cars & Zeekr being based in Sweden, these Waymo vehicles are supposed to be deployed in the USA somewhere. (NYC?)
So, the first thing we’re eager to find out is when Waymo robotaxis will launch in New York City. That’s unclear, and some have postulated that it may never launch there, that it’s just collecting useful data and experience there. I assume that there is a plan to open up shop in parts of NYC, but maybe I’m too hopeful and naive.
Here’s what Waymo had to say about the NYC testing and mapping when it launched into that in November 2021:
“New York City is the most densely populated city in the country, with bustling avenues, unusual road geometries, complex intersections, and constantly evolving layouts, and we’ve designed the Waymo Driver to handle these types of complex and dynamic activities that define city driving. Our vehicles will be manually operated by autonomous specialists at all times, to help us scale and advance our technology in support of our mission to make roads safer.
“The weather also gives us unique opportunities to learn. The heavy rain and dense snowfall that we expect to encounter will build on the driving we’ve completed to date in the snow and rain, giving us more opportunities to assess the way our sensors perform in wet, cold conditions beyond our data augmentation and simulation testing. Experiencing icy, snowy conditions will allow continued improvement of the Waymo Driver in the real world, and we will apply those learnings across our entire fleet.
“New Yorkers will begin to see Waymo vehicles driving in Manhattan this week, primarily south of Central Park. Our operations will extend down through the city to the Financial District and also out to a small section of New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel.
“We’ll be manually driving with five hybrid Chrysler Pacificas on the street during daylight. Later, we’ll manually drive several of our zero-emission Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with our latest technology on the same streets in Manhattan, as we continue learning from NYC’s busy traffic and unique geometric features. The insights we’ll gain will help the Waymo Driver improve its ability to perceive and predict the actions of other road users in dense urban areas.”
Beyond NYC and whether or not Waymo launches there, other questions are when and where Waymo plans to use the Geely/Zeekr electric vehicles. Arizona? San Francisco? NYC? Everywhere?
Cruising in that same direction: How many cities will Waymo be operational in by the end of 2022? What about by the end of 2023? 2025?
Last but not least, when will Waymo venture outside of the United States?
I think it’s fair to say that Tesla’s Full Self Driving suite is taking much longer to develop than many expected. (Yes, others were always very skeptical of Tesla’s approach and timeline. Feel free to rub it in.) GM’s Cruise is seen by many to be going along the same path as Waymo but further behind. So, in many respects, it appears that Waymo may be back in a lead of sorts. The news about New York City and Waymo’s gradual mapping of the city, the big Geely/Zeekr announcement at the very end of the year, and the operations in San Francisco (which seem to be going well enough, if not perfectly) all feel like they are building up a kind of crescendo of expectation for what Waymo will be able to do and where it will be operating by the end of 2022. That said, there are no clear breakthroughs in what it’s doing, and it’s been doing its thing for quite a while in little corners of the US at very high cost compared to the revenue being gathered. Is all of that work bringing it to a point where it can jack up its scale and operations and start making a profit? Or has it been lingering on cruise control for so long that investors are just eager to build up a lot of hype, launch an IPO, and pray for the best?
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