- Rikard Grunnan is Waymo’s Head of Technical Fleet Operations, based on Mountain View, California.
- He joined what was then known as the Google Car project in 2011 and hired to build self-driving technology into Toyota Priuses and Lexus SUVs.
- He then helped build Firefly, the dedicated self-driving vehicle platform that became the public face of the project when it was unveiled in 2014.
- Grunnan is a classic “maker” and something of an adventurer. He grew up in the car business, was hired because he could build anything, and has both restored old boats and crewed sailboats in highly competitive, world-class events.
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Editor’s note: Business Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company. This is the fourth profile in the series. To read the others, click here. For a brief history of Waymo, head over here.
In 2014, when what was then widely known as the Google Car project unveiled an actual vehicle that it had designed and built itself, it was a shot across the bow of the global auto industry.
Up to that point, the undertaking – internally referred to as “Chauffeur” – struck everybody outside the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, as a rather elaborate science project. The experiment got started in 2009, and by 2013, the world had gotten used to seeing Toyota Priuses and later Lexus SUVs bearing self-driving rigs on their roofs.
The question was, “What was Google planning to do with the moonshot effort?” It wasn’t clear that the answer was to make money.
That question wasn’t exactly answered in 2014, when the company pulled the cover off its Firefly prototype. But the arrival of a Google Car that the Google Car project has created made trying to figure out what was going on a lot more interesting.
“The rough and tumble was my work of art.”
Inside Google, that also meant taking the project to a new level of complication. But it also meant that Google wasn’t inheriting anything from an existing automaker; it could instead control everything about its first four-wheeled baby.
“The rough and tumble was my work of art,” said Rikard Grunnan, now Head of Technical Fleet Operations for Waymo, the separate company that the Google Car project became in 2016 (it’s a subsidiary of Alphabet, the holding company for Google and the search giant’s other brands).
In an interview with Business Insider, Grunnan called Firefly the “most clean slate” he had to work with in his capacity as a builder of self-driving vehicles. “To achieve a proof of concept, need to have a purpose-built, self-driving car.”
“Life before Google was very, very different,” Grunnan, who has been with the company since 2011, said. In fact, it was so different that he spent his time working not on landlocked machines, but on sailboats.
From sailboats to self-driving cars
Grunnan served as a shore team boatbuilder for what until recently was called the Volvo Ocean Race, essentially an endurance competition for sailboats. Grunnan worked with Paul Cayard, a legend of American yachting who competed in everything from the Olympics to the America’s Cup. He also restored old boats and was laboring on one (a Bertram 25) around the time the Google opportunity appeared.
He joined at what he referred to as the tail-end of the Prius phase of the project, when Google was shifting to Lexus SUVs as the testing platform.
“I got a call from a friend,” Grunnan recollected. “He said they need somebody who can build anything and knows their way around a car.”
Grunnan went in for interviews, got “grilled,” as he put it, and then didn’t hear back until he received a call at the end of a week asking if he could come in the following Monday.
“It was totally out of the blue,” he said. “And they said I might only have the job for a few days or a month.”
Grunnan had grown up in the car business. His family owned a California dealership, and he was a gearhead, comfortable with a wrench, tearing apart vehicles and putting them back together. The Lexuses were larger than the Priuses he initially dealt with, affording more interior and cargo space, so Grunnan and his coworkers were able to take their efforts to a new level.
“We figured out where we could put our harnesses” – the clusters of wires and components that made up the self-driving innards – and we took the front of the cars apart,” he recalled. “We sourced parts, we cut into the existing harnesses. We went through I don’t know how many generations of hardware. We pushed the limits of the vehicle, making it do things it wasn’t built for.”
Eventually, the work became second nature. “We could gut a Lexus interior in about 20 minutes,” Grunnan said.
It was excellent preparation to construct Firefly.
“We got pretty good at making our own new mounts, and that took me back to some of the composite work I’d done before. It was initially very hands on.”
Welcome to the Google Garage
What Google had done, effectively, was create that most Californian of efforts: a self-driving hot-rod shop whose 21st-century grease monkeys were handling carbon fiber and laser-radars instead of carburetors and sheet metal.
Firefly 1 was its crowning achievement. “We started with a mule chassis,” Grunnan said (a mule is a basic early architecture for a prototype vehicle). “But that by no means was intended to have a body. We decided on a carbon-fiber shell, and we got very creative on a crammed timeline.”
The Firefly fleet has since been retired, but as Grunnan pointed out, the team has kept Firefly 1 around. Enshrined at Mountain View, it’s Waymo Model T.
Now, Grunnan spends his time managing Waymo’s diverse and growing fleet, which includes everything from Chrysler Pacifica minivans to prototype semi tractors that, like the Priuses and Lexuses of the old days, have to be torn down and equipped with what Waymo now calls its “driver,” a suite of hardware and software systems.
Grunnan also manages Waymo’s relationship with AutoNation, the largest car retailer in the US, a deal inked in 2017 to maintain Waymo’s ever-expanding vehicle portfolio. It’s an example, Grunnan said, of how complex Waymo’s business has become; the company also works closely with its carmaker partners to develop maintenance schedules that take an elevated tempo of usage into account.
He gets up at six o’clock in the morning and arrives at the Googleplex around 7:30, then spends more time in conference rooms at meetings than he once did in what we might label the Google Garage. He also flies down to Phoenix, Arizona, several times each month to check up on the health of Waymo’s test fleet there.
That might sound less exciting than what he was doing before, but that’s not the way Grunnan sees it. For him, it’s just a new set of challenges and a new type of variety.
“No two days are the same,” he said.