640px-Waymo_self-driving_car_front_view.gk

Can Waymo Retain Their Lead in Self-Driving Tech

Waymo Self-Driving Tech

Media people expected to see a working self-driving technology by Waymo this month but Alphabet’s daughter company is reluctant to elaborate when a commercial service will be available across the United States. Waymo CEO John Krafcik told journalists “We’ll have to see,” after being asked how it feels to ride a self-driving car by Waymo at an event where media expected to hear a set date for Waymo’s official release of an autonomous driving service.

Other Companies Patent More Self-Driving Tech

The company is among the early developers of self-driving technology and this is one of the reasons they retain their lead in a field crowded with established players and startups alike. Furthermore, other companies have much more patents in the field of autonomous driving although many people still believe that Google, which owns Waymo through their parent company Alphabet, leads in that race.

Waymo infographic

(Image source: Statista)

Bosch, for example, have filed for three times more patents since 2010, and holds close to 960 autonomous driving patents compared to Google’s 338 patents in the field. Audi has 516 patents for self-driving technologies while competitors such as Continental and Ford both have patented over 400 technologies. Chinese manufacturers do not have so many patents, or they are not registered with Western patent agencies, but China’s manufacturers possess viable self-driving technology as well.

The days of Waymo as a leading force in the field of autonomous driving might be numbered bearing in mind that AI startups also make notable progress in machine learning technology that is applicable to self-driving vehicles. Tesla’s Elon Musk, for instance, insists they will be ready to launch a self-driving car as early as in 2019 while Ford plans to release their autonomous car in 2021. Both companies have acquired a number of startups that brought advanced self-driving technology to them.

Waymo Are under Pressure

Hence, Waymo are under massive pressure to show a viable product to retain their positions. The problem is that self-driving car are is not your usual product you can release and tweak on the go. You need to hit the market running and have a reliable product that would need only minor changes before mass production. If it were Apple, media would have been prepared for the usual secrecy surrounding their projects but in the case of Waymo journalists and industry experts are wondering whether the company has reached a point where their further research and development efforts are producing no results.

Then, we have the problem for manufacturing a car and selling it to customers. Ford and GM have the production facilities to manufacture vehicles powered by self-driving tech. Lyft and Uber have the marketing know-how to sell autonomous vehicles to the average customer. Tesla have Elon Musk.

China’s Answer to Driverless Car Race

For their part, Waymo must invest billions of dollars in building car-manufacturing facilities in addition to billions of dollars already invested in R&D activities. This would make their final product unsaleable due to skyrocketing costs or alternatively they should accept a meagre return on their investments. And they are yet to solve the marketing problem i.e. how to appeal to the average Joe and Jane who want to buy a self-driving car.

Even if Waymo, and their competitors, are able to solve all of the above issues, they will face the Apollo project by Baidu. China’s search engine giant already opened up their AI software for self-driving cars to any Chinese company interested in developing autonomous vehicles. It is a move as bold as if Microsoft have opened their Windows OS to everyone in the early 1990s. A wave of China-based developers and makers of self-driving cars might end up simply wiping out all the secretive R&D efforts by Western companies. Add the unparalleled low costs of Chinese manufacturing and you can easily imagine a world dominated by China-made driverless cars and trucks.

By Kiril V.Kirilov

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