John Krafcik, the former auto industry manager who took over the self-driving car project from Google in 2015, is stepping down as CEO of Waymo. Waymo, which was spun off as a separate Alphabet subsidiary in 2016, has achieved a lot during Krafcik’s five and a half year tenure. Even so, Krafcik could not live up to the high expectations he faced when he took the helm.
Until 2015, Google’s self-driving car project was led by engineer Chris Urmson. At the time, Google CEO Larry Page believed the technology was almost ready for commercialization and hired one type of car – Krafcik – to manage the practicalities of turning the technology into a shipping product.
Krafcik negotiated partnerships with automakers in the early years. Discussions about a possible partnership with Ford fall apart Early 2016. Krafcik then signed a smaller deal with Fiat Chrysler to buy 100 hybrid Pacifica minivans – a deal that was later expanded to 500 minivans.
Waymo announced purchase plans in early 2018 “up to” 20,000 Jaguar I-PACE electric cars and “Up to” 62,000 more Pacific. Waymo said it around the same time planned to start a driverless commercial taxi service before the end of 2018.
In short, Waymo expected its self-driving taxi service to be big business by now.
Things didn’t go according to plan
If that had happened, Krafcik would have been well positioned to lead Waymo as it grew from a small pilot in Arizona to a large company with tens of thousands of vehicles in dozens of cities. With a deep understanding of auto industry logistics and strong relationships within the auto industry, Krafcik could have ensured the process of integrating Waymo technology into Jaguar and Chrysler vehicles and then manufacturing some of them went smoothly.
However, it didn’t because commercializing self-driving technologies was proving to be more difficult than Waymo’s executives – and many outside analysts, including myself – anticipated in 2018. Waymo did this Start a commercial service in December 2018, but it came with a big asterisk: At the start, all vehicles still had a safety driver behind the wheel, anything but ensuring that the service would be unprofitable.
It would be almost two years – until October 2020 – for Waymo to stop using safety drivers for most commercial trips. There are now some signs that Waymos Service is finally growing beyond its original market. In recent months, the company has stepped up testing in San Francisco, leading to speculation that the Bay Area may be Waymo’s second market after Phoenix.
But the pace of growth seems icy compared to what the company expected a few years ago. A Waymo spokeswoman told Ars that the company’s fleet “has well over 600 vehicles in all of our locations.” Six hundred vehicles are less than 1 percent of the 82,000 vehicles Waymo ordered three years ago.
It is not clear why. Perhaps Waymo is gradually expanding for security reasons. Perhaps the vehicles in the rear require so much human control that the service is unprofitable even without a security driver. It may just take Waymo some time to build the infrastructure it needs to support thousands of vehicles in a number of cities.
And to be fair, it’s not clear if Krafcik is to blame for this. It’s possible that self-driving is just an inherently difficult problem and Waymo would have struggled to bring its technology to market under any market leader. It’s not that anyone in the industry skipped Waymo.
But the slow pace of self-driving technology certainly makes Krafcik’s expertise less relevant in the auto industry. Regardless of the constraints on Waymo’s growth, an insufficient supply of vehicles is certainly not one of them.
Krafcik will be replaced by two longtime Waymo executives who will serve as co-CEOs. Dmitri Dolgov is an engineer who has been part of the Google self-driving car project since 2009 and was previously Waymo’s chief technology officer. Tekedra Mawakana joined Waymo in 2017 to lead the Policy Shop and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2019. Dolgov will focus on improving Waymo technology while Mawakana will be responsible for business strategy.