Joel Johnson laughs nervously from the back seat when his self-driving taxi stops in the middle of a busy road in suburban Phoenix. The car, operated by autonomous vehicle pioneer Waymo, has encountered a row of traffic cones in a construction zone and won’t move. “Go around, man,” Johnson says as he gestures to the drivers honking behind him.
After the vehicle has spent 14 mostly motionless minutes obstructing traffic, a Waymo technician tries to approach—but the car unexpectedly rolls forward, away from him. “It definitely seemed like a dangerous situation,” Johnson recalls.
Incidents such as this one, which Johnson posted to his YouTube channel in May, are embarrassing for Waymo—a company that’s having its own problems moving forward. A unit of Alphabet Inc., Waymo hasn’t expanded its robo-taxi service beyond Phoenix after years of careful testing. The company has floated moves into other areas—trucking, logistics, personal vehicles—but the businesses are in early stages. And its production process for adding cars to its driverless fleet has been painfully slow.
This spring, Waymo saw a mass exodus of top talent. That included its chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and the heads of trucking product, manufacturing, and automotive partnerships. People familiar with the departures say some executives felt frustrated about the sluggish pace of progress at the enterprise.
Despite years of research and billions of dollars invested, the technology behind self-driving cars still has flaws. Not long ago, a glorious future of autonomous vehicles from Waymo and its many competitors seemed close at hand. Now, “what people are realizing is that the work ahead is really hard,” says Tim Papandreou, a transit consultant and former Waymo employee.
Waymo, by most measures, is still the leader of the world’s autonomous vehicle effort. The development of its technology began at Google more than a decade ago, and the company hit a historic milestone last year when it started its completely driverless taxi program in Arizona. During the pandemic, many rivals gave up on self-driving (Uber Technologies Inc.) or sold themselves to rivals (Zoox, which Amazon.com Inc. acquired). Waymo kept going, raising $5.7 billion from outside investors since last summer, adding to the untold billions Alphabet has already spent.
Waymo points to its remarkable track record vs. those of its rivals. Since last fall, the company says, it’s provided “tens of thousands” of rides without a driver present in Arizona. “We consider that to be a huge accomplishment,” a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement. “In fact, the absence of any other such fully autonomous commercial offering is a demonstration of how hard it is to achieve this feat.”
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