- In the development of autonomous-mobility businesses, Cruise and Waymo are staking out clear leadership positions.
- Waymo announced a $2.25-billion funding round this week, and Cruise is already valued at nearly $20 billion.
- Cruise is also showing dramatic progress with the testing of its ride-sharing service in San Francisco, ahead of a commercial launch in the city.
- Cruise and Waymo are definitely in something of a two-horse race, but they have somewhat different business models and objectives.
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When California’s Department of Motor Vehicles releases its yearly report of disengagements among the various permitted companies testing self-driving cars on roadways in the state, the general public often pays almost no attention, but the participants are often deeply invested with pointing out that it’s unfair to use the data to compare efforts.
They’re correct. Dozen of companies are testing autonomous technologies on California roadways, but some are racking up lots of miles, while some are barely doing anything at all. And different companies are pursuing different self-driving systems with multiple business models.
But two companies stand out quite clearly and, in the four years that California has required the players to record instances when autonomous vehicles had to disengage and be driven by a human, those companies have racked up miles that are outpacing everyone else.
The two clear leaders
Cruise is an independent company, based in San Francisco, that was acquired by General Motors in 2016 for about $1 billion all-in and is now, after several investment rounds, worth nearly $20 billion. GM is spending $1 billion annually to support it.
The former startup is on pace to have 2,000 employees and to commercialize a ride-sharing service in the coming years. The goal is to launch in San Francisco and optimize for the complicated, urban streetscape, on the reasonable assumption that any service should be where the riders are and that scaling Cruise to new markets should be focused on similarly dense cities.
In January, Cruise unveiled its Origin shuttle, a completely driverless vehicle on which it collaborated with GM and Honda. The Origin should follow a fleet of Cruise vehicles that will use autonomous Chevy Bolt EVs when the ride-hailing service launches.
Waymo is part of Alphabet and has been semi-independent since 2016. But for nearly a decade prior, it was known as the Google Car project and widely seen as the leader in the autonomous-mobility race. It’s never been entire clear how much money Alphabet is spending on Waymo, but around $1 billion a year seems to be the price to play in the space. And this week, Waymo announced a $2.25-billion initial funding round, its first-ever outside investment. In 2018, Waymo launched a service, Waymo One, in Arizona.
Cruise is being run by CEO Dan Ammann, who used to be President of GM, alongside CTO and cofounder Kyle Vogt. Waymo is also being piloted by an experienced automotive hand, John Krafcik, who ran Hyundai’s North American business until 2013 and before that was a noted advocate of so-called “lean” manufacturing, now the dominant way that automobiles are built worldwide.
For 2019, Waymo amassed 1.45 autonomous miles in California, with a disengagement about every 13,000 miles. Cruise drove fewer miles — more than 831,000, nearly doubling its 2018 total — and in the second half of 2019, Cruise recorded roughly one disengagement every 20,000 miles, as it increased the total miles it operated during the year.
In a series of tweets, Waymo noted that its California data is less important to the company than its Arizona results, as well as its progress in other places, such as Detroit.
A Cruise source, meanwhile, pointed out the company’s remarkable improvement in the California stats. This is critical, as Cruise intends to launch in San Francisco and has concentrated on dealing with the unique challenges of the urban setting.
Different business models
What’s clear is that Waymo and Cruise are together showing the best progress. But don’t forget that they have somewhat different business models. Cruise is all-in for shared, urban mobility, and Ammann has taken the bold step, for a former Detroit Big Three executive, of arguing that it’s time to end the era of personal car ownership.
This week, Krafcik upped the ante on his position that Waymo is actually developing a versatile robot replacement for humans that could operate a variety of vehicle types, in numerous environments, delivering services ranging from ride-hailing to cargo transport.
“We’re not a self-driving car company,” he said. “We’re building drivers.”
Cruise and Waymo aren’t alone. Tesla also insists that its Autopilot semi-self-driving system could enable full autonomy in the future. And companies such as ArgoAI, with investment from Ford and the VW Group, and Mobileye, now part of Intel, are looking to carve out businesses in deliveries, consumer applications, data management, and regulatory strategy.
But for now, all eyes are on Cruise and Waymo.