Eight years after starting its pioneering research into autonomous cars, Alphabet-subsidiary Waymo has invited residents of Phoenix, Arizona, to join an 'early rider' programme. By waiting so long, it may have slowed its progress and reduced its chances of dominating a market it created.
Google-owner Alphabet hopes to gauge demand for Waymo's technology, and gather data and feedback from hundreds of people who sign up to use its 500-plus vehicles. The cars have travelled almost 3 million miles along public roads, but have only ferried employees, contractors and the occasional journalist to date. Opening their doors to the public is a crucial step towards commercialising the technology, allowing Waymo to track and analyse how normal people use the cars, identify glitches, respond to accidents and explore ways to make money.
Waymo's slow progress reflects safety concerns and technical challenges. Indeed, it's still unwilling to let its vehicles operate independently: employees or contractors will be manning the vehicles in Phoenix, ready to take over if anything goes awry. Its caution makes sense: it's trialling nascent technology, and its cars have been involved in a handful of accidents. Future incidents involving passengers could lead to lawsuits against Alphabet, and it's hard to blame the driver if the vehicles are driving themselves.
Nonetheless, Waymo's prudence could mean it falls behind. Ride-hailing app Uber began picking up paying passengers with autonomous cars in Pittsburgh last year, and expanded into Tempe - a town east of Phoenix - earlier this year. Apple, Tesla, Toyota and others are developing their own self-driving vehicles, and they may not be as circumspect in their public deployment. Like other pioneers throughout history, Waymo risks being left in the dust by newer, more audacious entrants.
"First movers, except in industries where there’s a network effect or patents, have a disadvantage because you spend your time creating the market and getting people used to this idea and then someone else can swoop in and make it better," Originals writer Adam Grant told LinkedIn-founder Reid Hoffman. The self-driving industry is too small to have significant network effects, and patents don't provide much protection: Alphabet is currently suing Uber for allegedly stealing its technology.
Waymo has shown admirable restraint and responsibility by slowly and cautiously rolling out its unproven, potentially lethal technology. But as rivals race to grab their share of the burgeoning self-driving market, it needs to kick its efforts into a higher gear or risk being left behind.