Slow-and-Steady Waymo Is Winning the Self-Driving Race

Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving unit Waymo announced on Monday that it plans to unleash its cars onto the freeway in Phoenix “soon.” The city has long been a test bed for the latest in autonomy, and it’s where Alphabet’s engineers will be the first to send driverless tech hurtling down public roads at high speed without a safety driver.

Good for them. The milestone is a fair reward for Waymo’s more careful approach to autonomous vehicles when compared with its floundering and irresponsible rivals. That Waymo now stands ahead of its competitors should serve as a lesson to companies rushing forward with artificial intelligence: A little caution can pay off.

When Waymo was spun out of Google’s R&D labs in 2016, it was partly in response to itchy senior executives and investors who wondered when the moonshot project would ever start to bring in cash. Google had been a pioneer, picking up self-driving efforts from the US military’s DARPA wing — the department that tries outlandish tech ideas — and injecting it with some Silicon Valley gusto. It found quick and extraordinary success: Jaw-dropping demonstrations showed that the Google car had come extremely far in just a few short years.

I first tried it out in 2015, a throughly boring ride through the leafy residential streets of Mountain View, just around the corner from Google’s headquarters. I say boring because it drove like a grandmother — hesitating at points when most drivers would make a turn or refusing to go around some minor obstacle. Still, the feat at least was tremendously exciting, hinting at a future that was just around the corner. Or so we thought.

The timid driving style of those cars spoke to Waymo’s ethos, a goal that is black and white: Either it would produce a fully self-driving car or it wouldn’t produce anything at all. Any half-measures would put drivers and other road users at risk because its own testing showed frightening evidence that adding piecemeal autonomy meant drivers have a tendency to become complacent and tune out.

Elon Musk, naturally, held a different view. In 2014, Tesla Inc. began rolling out the irresponsibly named Autopilot — which was neither auto nor a pilot. Instead, it is a limited function that can only truly be relied upon on freeways and never without human drivers who have their hands on the wheel and are paying attention. “Systems requiring human driver oversight are not self-driving and should not be called self-driving,” a coalition of car companies, including Waymo, warned at the time. A Washington Post investigation in June 2023 logged 17 deaths and 736 crashes in the US in which Autopilot had been a factor.