I can see how we might disrupt the utilitarian market, because we can likely cover those needs in a cost-effective way, but the beauty for car enthusiasts is that every car that gets sold will have to be more interesting. It’ll have a purpose.”
Krafcik, 56, and Waymo were thrust further into the spotlight last month when it was announced that the firm had committed to buy up to 20,000 Jaguar I-Paces, which it will offer to the public to use autonomously from 2020. To look at him, you’d think he’d spent his life in Silicon Valley – there’s the floppy hair, stubbly chin and jeans, for starters – but in fact he spent decades in the car industry, working his way through the ranks (see separate story, right) before answering the call from Google’s founders to head up Waymo in 2016.
Ask him if the firm ever had plans – as long rumoured – to make cars as well as develop self-driving technology and he’s coy, saying only that “I’m not aware of it”. But when Waymo was launched at the tail end of 2016, those rumours were, for now at least, put firmly to bed.
“We built our own test car, called Firefly, but that was really because we could take advantage of the so-called ‘golf cart regulations’ that were in place to test our technology,” he says. “Up to 35mph, it could run in neighbourhoods without the need for a steering wheel, and it was our way of logging test miles. But building full cars is best left to the experts. They have their specialisms, we have ours.”
Those test miles are now Waymo’s answer to any concerns about the safety of the public testing of self- driving cars. Given a chance, Krafcik will repeat like a mantra the dual facts that the firm has covered five million autonomous test miles on public roads in the US and more than five billion miles in computer simulation. He’ll also state that Waymo’s proprietary lidar and radar systems, developed since 2008, are the best in the world, so much so that the firm plans to become the first to start public trials of autonomous cars without any ‘fail-safe’ humans behind a wheel over a 100-square- mile area of Arizona this year.
“When we set the company up, we asked ourselves what our role should be, and the answer was to develop the world’s best driver,” he says. “The technology we have today can drive anything from a giant truck to a Prius. If it moves, we can find a way to drive it.” Given that studies suggest autonomous driving technology will be a £5 trillion a year business by the middle of this century, you’d think it was pretty easy to understand Google’s interests in getting involved. Krafcik counter that with a steeliness that suggests there may be a truth to his words: “You might think money was the primary motivation, but it can’t be. The goal is zero fatalities. That’s it. If there’s payback for that social benefit, then great.”