Google parent spinning off self-driving unit Waymo

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Google parent spinning off self-driving unit Waymo

Google parent company Alphabet Inc. is separating its self-driving car project into a new business called Waymo, seeking to sharpen its focus on changing the transportation industry.

John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Waymo, announced the move Wednesday at an event in San Francisco. The company has been developing autonomous vehicle technology for more than six years, as part of its X research lab. Waymo is emerging from this research phase as a standalone business owned by Mountain View, California-based Alphabet.

“We will continue to have access to infrastructure and resources Alphabet provides, but in this new world as Waymo we also have this feeling like we are a venture-backed start-up,” the former Hyundai executive said. Those resources include Google’s software code from the autonomous project, and its powerful data centers.

Alphabet’s self-driving car project has lost several top executives this year, and some members of the team were frustrated by the pace of progress, especially as traditional automakers and rivals like Uber Technologies and Tesla Motors develop and move forward with their own autonomous-vehicle systems. After revealing the company name, Krafcik didn’t offer any details on Waymo’s plans for a viable commercial business.

Still, Waymo is making some progress - the company plans to start a ride-sharing service with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NA minivans using semi-autonomous technology as early as the end of 2017, people familiar with the matter said. Technology news website The Information reported earlier that Alphabet planned a self-driving ride service and could use Fiat minivans.

“Waymo’s next step will be to let people use our vehicles to do everyday things like run errands, commute to work, or get safely home after a night on the town,” the company said in a statement.

Krafcik said Waymo is adding new specialized sensors to Chrysler vehicles now, but didn’t comment on how the program has evolved, only noting that Fiat “has been a wonderful partner.”

While the unit now officially has a name, Krafcik dodged questions about its ultimate business plan. Project leaders have considered just putting its autonomous software in existing cars, making its own vehicles from scratch, and approaches in between. They’ve also debated selling autonomous cars for individuals to own, versus a paid subscription service where the vehicles are shared among many members.

“There are so many models for us to contribute to,” the Waymo CEO said. “I think we’ve been really clear that we’re not a car company. We’re not in the business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers.” Bloomberg

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