Alphabet exec says self-driving cars 'have gone through a lot of hype,' but Google helped drive that hype

Key Points
  • Waymo's "chief external officer" Tekedra N. Mawakana says hype around its self-driving cars became "unmanageable."
  • Mawakana suggested the media's "reporting" contributed to the hype, but neglected to mention Google's own part in creating it.
  • The dialed-back tone comes as the company and industry make slower-than-expected progress.
Ari Levy | CNBC

Waymo executives think people have taken its promises of self-driving cars too seriously.

The Alphabet subsidiary went "through a lot of hype that was sort of unmanageable," said Tekedra N. Mawakana, Waymo's chief external officer, at a Business Insider conference Tuesday. "Sometimes a lot of hype is so mismatched to what's happening in the real world."

Mawakana said the reporting has become a bit more "grounded" today, but he went on to say that the hype had caused people to develop mistaken ideas like they would no longer be able to drive their own cars once self-driving cars became ubiquitous.

"I'd like to see the reporting reflect a little more on the gravity of the opportunity that we have and a little less about the hype of what this is going to mean," she continued.

The company has dialed back its enthusiastic tone as it falls behind its original timeline for getting full self-driving cars on the road. The company said in 2017 that it wouldn't need to wait until 2020 ⁠— when analysts expected self-driving cars to go fully autonomous ⁠— but that it would give riders the ability within "months."

Morgan Stanley cut its valuation on Waymo by 40% last month from $175 billion to $105 billion, concluding that the industry is moving toward commercialization slower than expected and that Waymo still relies on human safety drivers, which CNBC reported in August.

But no company has been more instrumental in driving the hype around self-driving than Google. Consumer and media expectations arose based on what Waymo had told the press and public, dating back as far as 2012, when it was still known as Google's self-driving car project.

For instance:

  • In September 2012, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to Google headquarters to sign a law legalizing self-driving cars, saying, "Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality." Google co-founder Sergey Brin touted the cars as someday being safer than human-driven cars.
  • In 2014, Google revealed a new prototype of its "fully self-driving car" with no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal. At the time, Brin said the project was about "changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today." The company pushed a promotional video on YouTube that showed enamored kids, parents and senior citizens boarding the cars for rides, which it hoped to provide in San Francisco the following year. That video has received nearly 11 million views.
  • A blog post from the company told how a self-driving car drove an engineer's blind friend down a street in Austin, Texas, with "no police escort, no closed course, and most importantly, no test driver" in September 2015. "The wind from the open car windows was blowing through his hair, and he was chuckling as he relished the freedom and independence of being alone in a car for the first time in 12 years," wrote Waymo's principal engineer Nathaniel Fairfield.
  • CEO John Krafcik again referenced the ride in his opening keynote at NAIAS's 2017 inaugural Automobili-D conference in Detroit. "That was the world's first full self-driving ride," he said. "We did it in Austin, Texas, in a vehicle without a steering wheel, without break pedal, without a driver." A narrator in a video presented at the conference said, "the team has been developing fully self-driving cars and testing it on real city streets every single day" since 2009.
  • "Fully self-driving cars are here," Krafcik said again at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, where he presented a video of a man who fell asleep in one of the Waymo vehicles. "Nothing short of full autonomy will do," he continued. "It's not happening in 2020, it's happening today." Krafcik then said Waymo would make fully self-driving cars available without test drivers in the Phoenix area within months.

Two years later, the company is still singing that same tune. Earlier this month, the company reportedly sent notifications to Arizona residents who were part of Waymo's commercial pilot, Waymo One, stating "Completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way."

But, it still isn't clear how many of the cars will no longer need a test driver.

Don't expect that to stop Alphabet execs from referencing Waymo on the company's earnings call later this month. The self-driving car business often comes up during calls, typically with the word "exciting" attached.

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