Self-driving cars are not close to being a real thing, not even a little bit close, but the smart money in the ecosystem of companies that are trying to make self-driving cars real things has always been on Waymo, which has seemed furthest ahead for years. Except according to a new report, they might not do it either.
The report is a deep dive from Bloomberg, which, after some throat-clearing gets to the following critical bit, emphasis mine:
“There’s not a lot in assembly,” then-CEO John Krafcik, a former auto executive, declared at an event that year.
In reality, skilled disassembly is required. Engineers must take apart the cars and put them back together by hand. One misplaced wire can leave engineers puzzling for days over where the problem is, according to a person familiar with the operations who describes the system as cumbersome and prone to quality problems. Like others who spoke candidly about the company, the former employee asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
The painstaking nature of the process has left Waymo without a viable path to mass production, the person says. Waymo has slashed parts orders on the Chrysler minivan project and has had far fewer Jaguars delivered than initially expected, according to people familiar with the automakers’ plans.
The Waymo spokesperson says the company is not supply-constrained in Detroit, and that it’s on track to hit all its internal production targets with Jaguar, but declines to share details. The company also disputes that it’s fallen behind schedule on constructing its Chrysler vehicles, noting that these agreements are “fluid and subject to change.”
Now, in the modern world of automobile mass production, saying that a company builds its cars by hand is basically a slur, the kind of thing people liked to sling at Tesla in the old days. This is because it is presumed that, if you don’t have a highly automated manufacturing process, you cannot scale, and if you cannot scale then there is trouble at the heart of your business, indeed.
As Tesla has shown, it is possible to overcome such bumps in the road, but not without a lot of money and drama in the interim, which will test Waymo and Google parent Alphabet’s resolve. This is also to say nothing of the technology itself, which still isn’t Level 5 autonomous foolproof, and seemingly far from it.
Since Waymo has been at this for over a decade now, I would guess that it would take quite a bit for Alphabet to throw in the towel, but also Waymo’s longtime CEO quit in April, the kind of thing that is either a rich guy choosing to move on or, possibly, a harbinger of doom.
Who is waiting in the wings? There we have GM’s Cruise, Ford and VW’s Argo AI, and I guess Zoox is still kicking around; you’ll remember that Uber gave up on its autonomous aspirations late last year. Let’s not even talk about Tesla’s extremely dubious project. Will self-driving cars ever be a thing? Virtually all of the evidence still points to: No.