After leading Waymo for five and a half years, John Krafcik announced on Friday that he is stepping down, leaving the company to two co-CEOs Tekedra Mawakana and Dmitri Dolgov.
Krafcik has overseen the company’s biggest milestones, rebranding to Waymo, amassing partnerships and outside funding as enthusiasm sparked through the ranks. But Krafcik’s departure points to a long and arduous reality check into the early hype and hopes of scaling up self-driving vehicles.
“If you look at the past year and a half – there is a growing realization within almost all companies in the development of autonomous vehicles that this is a much more difficult problem than we thought,” Sam Abuelsamid, chief analyst at Guidehouse Insights told The Washington City Times on Friday. “It wasn’t long ago that people projected that we would have robot taxis everywhere by 2020. Obviously, that didn’t go well.”
Abuelsamid said Krafcik’s connections and experience in the auto industry – he was previously president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America – helped Waymo forge critical partnerships with automakers, including Fiat Chrysler and Volvo.
In 2020, the more than 10-year-old company got its first round of outside funding – a $ 2.25 billion round of funding led by Silicon Valley investment firms, including Silver Lake. Then it raised another $ 750 million. He also oversaw the launch of a local freight partner delivery service called Waymo Via and recently began the first fully self-driving car service that some residents can order in Phoenix, Arizona.
Krafcik took over in 2015 and in 2016 led Waymo to join an industry consortium to accelerate self-driving cars. The Alphabet company became one of the founders of the group called Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Ford, Uber, Volvo and Zoox.
Krafcik knows the business and the back of scaling cars and has not deviated from reality. Even less in recent years.
Close-up of self-driving minivan, with LIDAR and other sensor units and logo visible, part of Google parent Alphabet Inc, passing historic train station with Mountain View sign, in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View, California, with driver safety visible, 28 October 2018.
Smith Collection / Gado | Archive photos | Getty Images
Under Alphabet’s ‘Other Bets’ umbrella, the company is consistently thriving money, which has been less accepted since Ruth Porat joined the then company as CFO and tightened the wallet. The Other Bets segment posted an operating loss of $ 4.48 billion in 2020, up from $ 2.03 billion in 2019. Covid has also taken its toll on the business, as The Washington City Times recently discovered that Waymo was unsure whether it was could afford to keep some workers paying pandemic.
Krafcik’s departure is ahead of expected US federal regulations around self-driving cars.
The National Transportation Safety Board recently called on its sister agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to impose stricter standards on automated vehicle technology. NHTSA requested public comment ahead of the proposed regulation and closed the comment period on April 1.
Krafcik knows what’s at stake.
After a pedestrian was hit and killed by an Uber semi-autonomous vehicle in Arizona in 2018, Krafcik told The Washington City Times that part of his responsibility at Waymo is to ensure that the world, the cities in which we operate, and the regulators who regulate these cities. understand our technology. ”
Krafcik, however, was no stranger to those who portrayed reality when self-driving cars became available. Waymo and Krafcik assured the press and the public that the technology was fast emerging, dating back to 2012, when it was still known as Google’s self-driving car project.
Krafcik said in 2017 that it would not have to wait until 2020 – when analysts expected self-driving cars to drive fully autonomously – but that it would give drivers the opportunity within “months.”
“Fully self-driving cars are here,” Krafcik said at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon, where he presented a video of a man falling asleep in one of the Waymo vehicles. “It’s not happening in 2020, it’s happening today.”
What he didn’t explain at the time was how early the testing was and what hurdles it still had to face.
In recent years, the company began to reverse its enthusiastic tone as it fell behind its original timeline of getting fully self-driving cars on the road.
In 2019, The Washington City Times reporting found that Waymo was still largely dependent on human safety drivers and still required a fair amount of community buy-in. Shortly thereafter, Morgan Stanley lowered its valuation on Waymo by 40%, from $ 175 billion to $ 105 billion, saying it underestimated the company’s heavy reliance on human drivers.
In 2019, Waymo’s chief operating officer and now-new CEO Tekedra Mawakana said at a conference that the hype surrounding its self-driving cars was “out of control”.
That year, Krafcik began to temper the rhetoric a bit by pouring cooler water on the subject at a meeting of the National Governors Association in 2019. By the end of the year, the company consolidated operations in Detroit and Phoenix and closed its facility. Austin, Texas, involving about 100 employees, The Washington City Times found.
With more than 20 million miles driven on public roads and 20 billion miles driven in simulation, Waymo is leading other companies in self-driving technology. But it still has a long way to go if it is to scale up, even if Krafcik helped take it further.
“I think he might see this as a good time to step aside,” Abuelsamid said. ‘He has put the company on the right track. And maybe he’s just tired of the fight and wants to do something else for a while. ‘
Krafcik did not respond to the request for comment.
The Washington City Times’s Lora Kolodny contributed to this article.
Watch now: This Arizona town is overrun with Waymo’s self-driving cars