One of the last major hurdles standing in the way of the commercialisation of autonomous vehicles technology, or driverless cars to use the layman’s term, has been overcome with the announcement that Alphabet unit Waymo has been granted a test permit for California’s public roads. Driverless cars have clocked up millions of test miles already as tech and car manufacturing companies fine tune the latest technology in the world of AI-powered sensors, computer vision and the relay of that data into actionable control of a motor vehicle.
However, until now, a human has also always been present in the vehicle and able take over in an emergency situation. The new permit means Waymo’s driverless vehicles will now be able to navigate California’s public roads without a human operator. Test drives will initially be confined to the region around Alphabet’s Palo Alto HQ in northern California and driverless vehicles will be limited to an upper speed limit of 65 mph. Alphabet is the holding company of Google, created in 2015 to better structure the search engine giant’s growing group of companies that have different technology focuses and business verticals. Waymo is focused on building an OS for driverless vehicles in an approach to the new industry which is reminiscent of how Android was positioned in the smartphone market.
Waymo’s driverless technology is widely regarded as being the furthest advanced of the competitors vying for market share of what is predicted to be a hugely valuable new sector (UBS forecasts a $2.8 trillion global market value by 2030) that will have massive repercussions on economies and lifestyles. Waymo-powered driverless vehicles have already covered more than 10 million test miles with human operators, more than any other company. Over 10 billion simulated miles have also been driven by the company. Waymo started working on its ‘end-to-end’ driverless system around 5 years before any of the major auto manufacturers.
Becoming the first driverless technology company is another milestone that keeps Waymo one step ahead of its competitors. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has also rejected one other application on the grounds that it was ‘incomplete’. The development gives Waymo a head start in being able to clock the miles that will be necessary for the future successful application for a full commercial permit for driverless taxi services. The company has also already begun to offer a commercial driverless taxi service in Arizona, with the pilot operating in the Phoenix suburbs.
A total of sixty companies hold other kinds of permits for the testing of driverless technology on California’s roads, demonstrating the level of competition that will exist from the outset of the driverless sector. However, at this point it would be a brave bet against Waymo cementing its position as the industry’s early pacesetter, at least in Western markets. It is believed that the company currently has no ambitions to manufacture its own cars but, like Google’s Android operating system is licensed to smartphone hardware manufacturers, Waymo will seek to license its driverless system to auto manufacturers.