Here’s the biggest thing Google got wrong about self-driving cars

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Business Insider/Biz Carson

Google made a big move this week to push its self-driving car plans back into the spotlight.

Google announced it was spinning out its self-driving car unit into an independent company called Waymo on Tuesday.

The tech giant has been working on autonomous technology longer than anyone in the game. It first announced the project in 2009 under Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor lauded as the founder of the self-driving car.

The concept of building a robot car was so bizarre at the time it prompted Fiat Chrysler to launch a peculiar attack ad in 2011:

“Hands-free driving, cars that park themselves, an unmanned car driven by a search-engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.”

Well, times have changed. Now Fiat Chrysler supplies Pacifica minivans for Waymo. Major automakers like General Motors and Ford are also investing in self-driving cars.

But even though Google has been in the self-driving car space longer than anyone else out there – before it was even considered a legitimate space like it is today – it’s getting lapped by the competition.

Google may know what it’s doing when it comes to refining self-driving car technology, but it has been totally lost when it comes to bringing a product to market.

Lapped by the competition

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Justin Sullivan/Getty

Up until Tuesday, Google has set itself apart from competitors by pursuing a fully self-driving car built without a steering wheel or pedals. That vision was embodied by its “Koala” prototype cars that have operated without driver controls since 2014 and don’t come with a driver’s seat.

But at its Waymo press event, CEO John Krafcik said the steering wheel will stay and the cars will be piloted by humans.

Krafcik said the steering wheel will stay due to regulatory issues, but that Google will keep pursuing Level 5 autonomy, which is when a car can drive itself without any human input or surveillance.

But Michigan recently passed legislation that, among other things, allows for the testing of self-driving cars without a steering wheel, brake pedal, or human in the front seat. Google was one of several companies that helped shape the legislation.

Now, Michigan is just one state, and it in no ways guarantees that kind of legislation will make its way through on the federal level. But at the very least it gave Google an opportunity to showcase its vision on public roads, so why back out now?

The most likely explanation is that Google has changed its strategy to get its product to market faster. Goodbye Koala pod cars operating without a steering wheel, hello regular-looking cars with self-driving tech.

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An Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh.
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Business Insider/Corey Protin

“We are a self-driving technology company. We’ve made it pretty clear we are not a car company,” Krafcik said at the Waymo event.

Ultimately, it seems the pressure to get something to the market has won out.

Bloomberg’s Alistair Barr reported in September that it was Alphabet CEO Larry Page that continued to push for full autonomy, even though staff members pointed out it was holding back progress.

Google employees explored partial autonomy, along the lines of Tesla Autopilot, in 2012. But when the company saw a driver’s attention began to drift, Google decided to pursue full autonomy at all costs, Bloomberg reported. That decision led many staff members to leave Google and pursue self-driving car projects that held more promise of making it to market.

Now, Krafcik has made it crystal clear that Waymo is still committed to Level 5 autonomy, but integrating self-driving tech into a car with standard driver controls certainly shows an acquiesce to keep things more consumer friendly.

After all, it’s unlikely consumers wants their first experience with a self-driving car to be one without any semblance of control.

The Information’s Amir Efrati reported Monday that Waymo is ultimately planning to leverage its existing partnership with Fiat Chrysler to release a line of robot taxis in 2017. That decision highlights the pressure Google feels from Uber, which launched a self-driving car pilot in Pittsburgh in September (though its recent San Francisco pilot launch could put the company in legal trouble.)

Krafcik said at the Waymo event that Google was interested in using its self-driving technology for ride-sharing, but didn’t comment on The Information report.

But even acknowledging the prospect of a ride-sharing service shows Google is readying to bring something to market.

Uber, naturally, isn’t the only competitor in Google’s path.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in October that its cars are currently being built with fully driverless hardware. He also plans to launch a ride-sharing service, Tesla Network, for Tesla’s self-driving cars.

General Motors is also interested in integrating its self-driving car vision with its car-sharing service, Maven. It has also invested $500 million in Lyft, Uber’s competitor.

Whether Google will actually launch its self-driving tech in a ride-sharing service consumers can experience in 2017 has yet to be seen.

But Google will need to continue to adapt to get its self-driving tech to market before rivals that entered the self-driving car space after it take up the market. It’s decision to keep the steering wheel shows one step in that direction, what comes next could decide whether Google stays relevant in this space.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.