Why Waymo’s John Krafcik says ‘self-driving’ needs to go

This was not the opening to an existential discussion, but “an actual question with some merit,” he said. Waymo had come to the conclusion the phrase didn’t accurately describe the technology the company is building.

“Is the self the car? If so, it doesn’t really do good service to the product we’re working on,” Krafcik said. “Our sole product at Waymo is a driver. So when you say ‘self-driving’, it takes Waymo out of the equation.”

That was not the only reason. Across the industry, too many companies have created confusion by using it to describe driver-assist technology, which still requires a licensed human driver who maintains responsibility for all vehicle operations.

Given some of the fatal crashes that have occurred involving human drivers who overrelied on their driver-assist systems, according to federal crash investigations, the language has become a life-and-death concern.

“Language really does matter,” Krafcik said. “We made the point that sometimes, the first name isn’t the name that sticks. The flying machines of 1903 eventually became airplanes, and I think we might have gotten the terminology here somewhat incorrect or imprecise.”

Among other Waymo developments that Krafcik detailed:

  • The Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicles upfitted with Waymo’s autonomous-driving system are beginning to be deployed in the company’s operational hub in the Phoenix area.
  • Customers who use the Waymo One ride-hailing service are happier now that human safety drivers have been removed, according to internal surveys.

“They prefer some of the advantages of having the space completely to themselves,” Krafcik said.

  • The company’s hardware development was delayed for pandemic-related reasons last year and on-road mileage accumulation was lower than anticipated. But Krafcik said both are now back on schedule.

Amelia J. Bell

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