Waymo Is Still an Expensive Science Project in Search of a Business

January 7, 2020, 2:41 PM UTC

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John Krafcik, CEO of Alphabet’s self-driving car project, Waymo, heads a company that has an odd combination of attributes. It is, on the one hand, the widely acknowledged technology leader in robotic car technology, having been at it for 11 years. At the same time, all these years later, Waymo remains an expensive science project in search of a business. No one quite doubts Waymo can find a way to commercialize its technology, but no one quite knows exactly what it will be.

Krafcik is a crafty auto industry veteran. He doesn’t like to answer questions on the first pass and doesn’t necessarily do much better on the second try. But he was a lively conversationalist before a Fortune audience at the CES conference in Las Vegas last night.

He said Alphabet, the holding company that holds Google and an oddball collection of other exotic stuff, has invested “billions” in Waymo. It has crafted deals with a hodgepodge of auto makers—notably Land Rover, Chrysler, and Renault—but failed to persuade their better financed competitors to arbitrage their future revenue opportunities for the chance to work with a Google sister company.

Right now Waymo makes money—Krafcik doesn’t say now much—in four ways: a limited ride-hailing service in Arizona that operates with fully driverless cars; a delivery service; a long-haul trucking trial; and a business that licenses its sensor technology. Krafcik recently gave the impression that trucking could make a better short-term opportunity than ferrying human passengers. He didn’t exactly disavow that assertion Monday, though he said ride-hailing should be a bigger market by 2030. That’s a long way off.

This is all fun and exciting and interesting. Self-driving cars haven’t yet lived up to their hype. The technology is costly. The tests have only been conducted in fair-weather cities. Regulators move more slowly than robots. After Krafcik left the stage, the chatter in the room was about whether new Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and his chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, will force Waymo to begin earning back its investment sooner rather than later.

Adam Lashinsky

Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

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This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


If it oinks like a pig. Expanding from its plant-based burgers, Impossible Foods is creating pork and sausage substitutes. The new Impossible Pork and Impossible Sausage will also be based on a soy protein, the company said at the CES show in Las Vegas.

Heard this one before. In less down-to-Earth news at CES, Hyundai said it would partner with Uber on a flying taxi vehicle. Electric-powered with a range of 60 miles and a top speed of 200 miles per hour, the craft is just a concept right now. Closer to the here and now, Elon Musk's SpaceX launched another 60 satellites for its planned Spacelink Internet service. With 180 of the medium-sized craft in orbit now, SpaceX becomes the operator of the largest constellation of satellites in the world.

Bits and bytes. Chipmakers AMD, Intel, and Qualcomm had new products to show off, in varying levels of detail. AMD gave delivery dates and prices for most of its new chips, headlined by the $4,000 Ryzen Threadripper with 64 cores, arriving on Feb. 7. Qualcomm introduced a chipset for self-driving cars dubbed the Snapdragon Drive Pilot. And Intel said its new, higher-performing Tiger Lake laptop chips would be arriving some time later this year.

No more pies. Pizza-making robot startup Zume plans to slash its workforce amid uncertainty about a major investment expected from SoftBank, Business Insider reports. SoftBank, still suffering from losses on WeWork and other investments, appears to have pulled back from some of its prior commitments.

Dissed to his face. I missed it Sunday night, but Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais aimed one of his cutting remarks at Apple while CEO Tim Cook sat in the audience. Apple's TV program The Morning Show was "a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China," Gervais said.


We've been inundated with tech predictions about the new decade, and some lists are more interesting than others. Serial entrepreneur Elad Gil, who sold his last startup, Mixer Labs, to Twitter, has quite a few. Unlike other lists, none of Gil's ideas require huge breakthroughs that may or may not happen. Instead, Gil focused on how existing technologies could be put together in new ways. For example: neighborhood or corporate pollution sensor networks.

The California wildfires have caused me as a parent to look frequently at pollution data. Even basal pollution levels may impact cognitive function. There seems to be room for both home/neighborhood and corporate level pollution sensor networks. One could imagine a service where companies or people buy hardware + analytics for their homes or facilities and then a subscription for people who do not own the hardware but live nearby. An early player in this area is Aclima which has done cool things with Google.


Speaking of Apple TV, the iPhone giant struck an exclusive, five-year production deal with former HBO chief Richard Plepler. Plepler left HBO last year after AT&T took over the company...Health insurance startup Bright Health hired former Target CFO Cathy Smith as its new CFO. Smith left Target in November and was limited by a $1.5 million non-compete agreement...Chicago startup Mobile Doorman named Nitin Vig as its new CEO, replacing co-founder Bob Matteson, who becomes executive chairman. Vig joined the company last fall as COO after working as a consultant at McKinsey & Co.


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One more list for you to start the year. This one needs no explanation beyond the headline: 10 Bathrooms You Should Pee in Before You Die.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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