Future Tense

Waymo Is Beating Uber in the Self-Driving Car Race. That’s Bad News for Traffic.

Journalists photograph a prototype of the self-driving, electric, Jaguar I-Pace at the Waymo launch event on Tuesday.
Technology changes, but everybody loves a shiny new car. Henry Grabar

Last fall, Zipcar founder Robin Chase released a 10-point manifesto with this philosophy: Let’s not make the same mistakes with driverless cars that we made the first time we introduced the automobile into cities.

It’s an urbanist’s platform in support of a future where we devote less city space to cars, not more. To that end, the 10th principle is that autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas should be operated only in shared fleets—as taxis, not as private cars.

That’s a radical idea. In addition to its role in American folklore, personal-vehicle ownership has exerted enormous influence on the shape and feel of our cities, requiring expressway construction, surrounding restaurants and shops with moats of parking spaces, and injecting traffic and parking concerns into the heart of urban politics. Those priorities in turn have isolated and damaged communities where people don’t drive.

It’s hard to imagine the past 100 years unfolding with an emphasis on shared cars, though cities with robust bus networks offer a hint of how that might have gone. But it’s easy, thanks to Uber, Lyft, and a handful of car-sharing startups, to foresee a future city where the role of personally owned vehicles is greatly reduced. The great promise of AVs—that they essentially make it easier, faster, and cheaper to get around—is in large part predicated on limiting personal AV ownership or taxing its use. (If every one of today’s personal cars—and then some, for all the people who don’t or can’t drive—is replaced by a self-driving robot car, the traffic is going to get worse, not better.)

So you can see why Uber and Lyft are two of the marquee corporate names, together with other mobility companies and a number of local governments, that have endorsed Chase’s vision. Whatever you think of their corporate conduct and business models, the long-term reduction in personal-car ownership is very much in their interest, and they know it. Absent from the signatories are U.S. carmakers, which are also pouring resources into AV technology but remain built to sell as many cars as possible. (This includes Tesla, despite Elon Musk’s vision of buyers one day subletting their personal cars into an autonomous Tesla taxi fleet.)

Interestingly, the company that appears poised to cross the AV finish line first is neither a mobility-as-a-service outfit nor a carmaker. It’s Google’s Waymo, which characterizes its mission as building “the world’s most experienced driver.”

On Tuesday, Waymo arranged a much-hyped press conference at New York City’s Chelsea Piers, where CEO John Krafcik revealed the company’s collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover: a market-ready, self-driving, electric Jaguar I-Pace. Waymo is ordering up to 20,000 of the vehicles, which will be produced over the next two years and could perform 1 million trips a day in self-driving service. The company’s AV taxi trial will debut this year over a 100-square-mile area in Phoenix.

“Our model isn’t to be a car company,” Krafcik told reporters. “Our role in the world is to build the world’s most experienced driver and deploy that driver in as many places as we can.” The Waymo business model has four components: ride-hailing, trucking and logistics, last-mile solutions (helping riders connect to transit), and licensing. That last part is important: It means providing AV tech to companies like Jaguar who want to sell it directly to buyers.

You could see the Jaguar collaboration as a way to entice future Waymo riders with what Jaguar CEO Ralf Speth emphasized as a “luxury” car, in the same way that Uber began as a high-end service. But it’s also hard not to see the I-Pace as a direct competitor to Tesla’s own high-end electric cars. Only this one will actually drive itself.

That doesn’t mean Waymo might not wind up furnishing other companies’ taxi fleets with the technology they need to drive without human help, or expanding its own mobility-as-a-service offerings. But the company—whose CEO, by the way, comes by way of Detroit, not Silicon Valley—also has an interest in the traditional American model, selling as many cars to as many people as possible.