Waymo’s dream of putting a car without a steering wheel on the market is far from dead.
Waymo is an independent company that spun out from Google’s internal self-driving-car team in 2016. The spin off resulted in a series of sweeping changes designed to get Waymo’s tech on the market faster, like the decision to keep driver controls in future test vehicles.
The company’s classic “Koala car,” internally dubbed Firefly, was officially retired and Waymo has been testing its self-driving tech on Fiat Chrysler Pacifica minivans ever since.
The decision to test its technology in a normal car made it seem like the company had given up on the idea of a self-driving car without controls.
Google had long distinguished itself from other companies for committing to the development of a true robot car without a steering wheel or pedals. Most companies, like Tesla and Audi, have pursued less ambitious systems that automate some tasks but keep the driver in control.
Now the tides appear to be turning. Waymo CEO John Krafcik told Business Insider that the company is still very much committed to helping bring a true robot car to market.
However, Waymo wouldn’t build the car itself. Instead, the company would provide the autonomous technology that would allow other companies to build a car without controls. And given the current political climate, it’s looking like bringing this kind of car to market is becoming more feasible, Krafcik said.
“The good news is what you saw the House passing, and the Senate bill that is to come, acknowledges that there needs to be more flexibility,” Krafcik said in an interview. “So that will give us all in the space opportunity to experiment and innovate with cars without a steering wheel.”
Krafcik said the 2016 decision to keep driver controls in the vehicle was never meant to indicate a pivot in strategy.
The choice to reinstate driver controls in Waymo test vehicles had to do with the regulatory environment. At the time, the state of California had proposed a set of rules that would forbid autonomous vehicles from operating without driver controls. Google was vocal about its disappointment in the ruling.
In just the last year, the federal government has taken serious strides to limit states’ ability to dictate the terms of autonomous car deployment.
The House unanimously passed a bill in September that would give the government the authority to exempt automakers from certain safety standards, paving the way for true robot cars to hit the road.
Krafcik said it’s a promising sign that a commercial version of Waymo’s Firefly car could return.
“Absolutely I think we will have that in our future,” Krafcik said when asked whether Waymo will look to ditch driver controls in the current regulatory environment. “Not just Waymo, but others in the industry as well.”