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Google Spins Autonomous Vehicle Project Off On Its Own As 'Waymo'

The company, from the “moonshots” unit, falls under the Alphabet umbrella.

(TNS) — MOUNTAIN VIEW — Google parent Alphabet on Tuesday spun off its self-driving car project from the “moonshots” unit into its own company, a strong step toward commercializing the technology.

“We can see our technology being useful in personal vehicles, ride sharing, logistics, or solving last-mile problems for public transport,” said John Krafcik, Google’s CEO of the autonomous vehicle project.

The new company, called Waymo, falls under the Alphabet umbrella.

“When a large company like Google spins off one of their key research groups into its own little company, it’s usually a risk-based move,” said Michael Pack, director of the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory. “They’re essentially trying to shield the rest of the company from the risk that may come with this venture.

“You could argue that self-driving cars are a riskier venture than other offerings that Google may have done in the past. No one’s going to die because a Google search engine doesn’t return the right results. Someone very well may die if their car drives off a cliff.”

While the self-driving car project was in Alphabet’s “X” unit for “moonshots,” there was much speculation over what the business plan or “end game” was, said Bryant Walker Smith, a risk, technology and mobility expert at Stanford University.

The birth of Waymo, Smith said, “starts to sound like something that’s more consumer oriented.”

Google started work on robotic vehicles in 2009, and its cars have driven more than 2 million miles in autonomous mode, with the vehicles’ artificially intelligent software boosted by a further billion miles of simulation testing, according to Google.

“Our cars can now handle the most difficult driving tasks, such as detecting and responding to emergency vehicles, mastering multi-lane four-way stops, and anticipating what unpredictable humans will do on the road,” Krafcik said.

The cars navigate using 3-D digital maps combined with data from cameras, lasers and radar that gather information in 360 degrees. Those sensors can identify pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles and road work from up to 200 yards away, according to the firm.

An online Q&A from Waymo indicates the company intends to produce fully autonomous vehicles with no need for human intervention.

“The car is designed to do all the work of driving and the person in the vehicle is never expected to take control of the vehicle at any time,” Waymo said.

Technology for self-driving vehicles has advanced so speedily over the past few years that some fully autonomous vehicles are probably now capable of operating on public roads, Pack said. But the technology will hit the market initially through pilot projects around ride-sharing, Pack believes.

Such pilots could come next year, and may also include delivery services, Stanford’s Smith said. Running centrally governed fleets of autonomous vehicles would let a company monitor and control new-to-the-market technology more effectively than with personal robot cars, Smith said.

Also on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Alphabet plans to start a ride-sharing service with Fiat Chrysler. Semi-autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans will hit the street as early as the end of next year, unnamed sources told Bloomberg.

©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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