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Outlier’s Path

Fast and Deliberate

After hearing several positive reports, I took three Waymo rides this weekend in SF, including one in the evening with heavy rain. The consumer experience was magical. There was attention to detail along the whole journey. At pickup, the LED sign flashed my initials. When I unlocked the car and entered, there was a welcome greeting. Along the ride, I could see all the people and other vehicles in the vicinity on the screen and how the driving algorithm would navigate the traffic and direct the car. A few minutes before our destination, the vehicle alerted us that we were approaching our destination. Most importantly,  I could have a private conversation or jam to my music while enjoying a smooth ride.

I have dreamed of this day since I heard Sebastian Thrun’s 2011 TED Talk. He shared that he lost his friend Harold to a car accident, and since then, he has been on a quest to save lives, reduce traffic, and recapture time. In 2015, Chris Urmson’s TED Talk explained that 33,000 people die annually in the US due to car accidents and showed the math that across 120m US workers, commuting on average 50 minutes per day, we collectively lose 6 billion minutes per day, which is equivalent to 162 lifetimes per day! These are staggering numbers merely getting from place to place.

Recently, Bloomberg Columnist David Lee wrote an opinion piece entitled “Slow-and-Steady Waymo Is Winning the Self-Driving Race.” While one might believe that Waymo is the tortoise that moves slowly and prioritizes safety, I submit a different perspective.

It is true that when Google first started its self-driving project, it limited speeds to 25 mph, and the vehicles were very cautious. However, Waymo’s Wikipedia page shows that the team moved very quickly. They were the first driverless vehicles on public roads in October 2015. Testing expanded to Phoenix, AZ, and Kirkland, WA, in 2016. The testing expanded to all of Arizona and Michigan in 2017. In late 2018, Waymo was the first company to receive a CA permit that allowed day and night testing on public roads and highways. In mid-2019, Waymo started transporting passengers with safety drivers. By late 2020, Waymo became the first company to transport passengers without safety drivers. It is hard to claim that Waymo was slow when it was the first to achieve this many significant milestones.

Waymo’s ability to move fast stems from being deliberate about their goals. From day one, Google’s and then Waymo’s mission has been to build the technology for fully autonomous self-driving, not driver assistance. In Urmson’s TED Talk, he explains that a human driver will make a mistake that leads to an accident one in 100,000 miles, which means driver assistance technology only really needs to take over from a human in that order of magnitude. Meanwhile, a self-driving vehicle needs to make 1,000 decisions in a mile. Therefore, the order of magnitude difference between driver assistance and self-driving technologies is 10^8 (=100,000 x 1,000). One can quibble with this simple math, but the point is that if the reasoning is approximately correct, even if off by a few orders of magnitude, shooting for driver assistance will lead you to be many orders of magnitude off from the goal of self-driving.

Waymo is winning because they are shooting for the right goal and are moving quickly towards them. So when you set goals, be deliberate and know why you are shooting for them. Once set, move fast.