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Google is launching a new self-driving car company called Waymo

Transportation Sec'y Foxx Discusses Future Transportation Trends With Google CEO Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, announced a new company called Waymo that will commercialize the self-driving car technology Google has been developing for the past seven years.

At a San Francisco media event, Google introduced Steve Mahan, a blind man who has become a poster child for Google’s self-driving car efforts. It showed a video of him riding alone through the streets of Austin, Texas — something that happened in October 2015 but that Google hasn’t discussed publicly until now. Mahan was in a pod-shaped vehicle similar to the prototype Google showed off in 2014.

“I am a legally blind American, and there are millions of people like me, both blind and also perhaps having other disabilities that, or just a situation of age, that would prevent me from navigating in a standard vehicle,” Mahan said. “For millions of Americans, this is a promise of hope and independence and continuance of an active life.”

Alphabet emphasized the safety of its technology. In another video, it showed an Alphabet engineer snipping the power cable to the car’s main computer. The vehicle responded flawlessly to the outage, flashing a warning about a system failure and pulling over gracefully to a parking space.

But what was conspicuously missing from the presentation was any specific announcement about how the company would be bringing self-driving technology to the public. Pre-event rumors indicated that Alphabet would be launching a ride-sharing service using vehicles developed by Fiat Chrysler. Such a service might be in the works, but if it is, Alphabet reps didn’t tell us anything about it in Tuesday’s presentation. An executive just promised more information about commercialization would be coming “soon.”

Alphabet is in danger of falling behind on self-driving technology

Google once had a big head start on self-driving car technology; it started working on the problem back in 2009, long before rivals like Uber, Tesla, or Detroit automakers had started work on their own self-driving software. But over the past year, the company has faced increasingly stiff competition.

Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Uber, Lyft, and Tesla have all made major announcements about self-driving projects this year. Uber even announced that it would begin making self-driving cars available (albeit with a driver behind the wheel making sure nothing goes wrong) in Pittsburg in August.

At the same time, Alphabet has been bleeding talent, as some of the project’s engineers have grown impatient with the company’s slow progress. A team of Alphabet engineers founded a self-driving truck company called Otto earlier this year. By the end of the year it had been acquired by Uber. In August, Alphabet lost three key executives on its self-driving car team. One of them, former project leader Chris Urmson, is working on a self-driving car startup of his own.

Those departures put pressure on Alphabet to transform its science project into a working commercial product. The creation of Waymo is an important step in that direction. But it’s going to have to do a lot more to turn its impressive technology into an actual shipping product.

Disclosure: My brother works at Google.

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