Finding A New Way(mo)

Waymo has changed leadership. What can we deduce (i.e. speculate) from the new faces?

Waymo, the autonomous car wing of Alphabet, announced new leadership last week. For a long time, the company was headed by John Krafcik, who has extensive experience in the automotive industry. He is now stepping down, and leaving leadership to a team of two: Dmitry Dolgov and Tekedra Mawakana. Why is that interesting?

Of course, anytime an industry leader like Waymo makes significant changes in their top management, it makes for industry news. But the change has another dimension to it.

Krafcik, as mentioned above, is all about the car industry, having worked for Hyundai and pioneering lean production methods in the US.

The two new faces are a different breed, though. First of all, they’re not entirely new, but rather are internal people being moved up to fulfill the role of joint CEO. Dolgov is the now former CTO of Waymo, with Mawakana previously serving as COO.

Dolgov has a background in AI, in particular in the context of autonomous vehicles, having worked on the subject for Toyota and under the joint Stanford/DARPA Urban Challenge Team.

Mawakana, on the other hand, is a highly experienced lawyer, specializing in tech policy. And her experience as COO of Waymo has given her solid insight into the company’s day-to-day runnings.

What does this switch tell us?

As for Krafcik’s departure, there are two options: he’s leaving under his own initiative (as he stated in his LinkedIn post), or he’s being asked to leave. If it’s the former, it doesn’t tell us much, after all, even CEOs leave companies all the time. That being said, I always felt he was the right guy at the wrong time. His experience speaks to a skillset of optimzing production and building partnerships, which is now exactly where Waymo is at right now. That is purely my take (speculation), but if I’m right, that may have been a part of his reason for leaving. Or, if he’s been asked to leave, it may be for the same reason.

Putting Dolgov and Mawakana in his place is an interesting move by Alphabet, and one that tells us a bit more, about the company’s outlook and the state of autonomous vehicles in general. While there’s no shortage of autonomous vehicle initiatives out there, none are all the way there yet. No level 5s for us (though Elon Musk claimed recently that they’ll come this year). And the problem seems to be very much one of AI, more so than say, hardware. We have the cameras, we have the LIDAR, we have the proximity sensors. What we need are cars that make the right call at the right time, at least as well as humans (which, to be honest, isn’t much of a benchmark). Dolgov could be just the man to iron out the final kinks from the brains of the car.

But building the beast is one thing, another is getting it on the road. Autonomous vehicles open up a hornet’s nest of legal discussions. Such as, in case of an accident, who’s to blame? If I am the “driver” of an autonomous vehicle, but have the car in full self-drive mode (level 5 stuff, so no driver interaction needed), and I run into another car, am I to blame? Is the car? The manufacturer? Whose insurance covers the cost?

Getting legislators around the world to open the roads up to autonomous vehicles is going to be no small task, and protecting the companies making the vehicles is going to require quite a bit of work, too. Mawakana is a perfect match for that task.

My take from the change is that self-driving cars aren’t quite there yet. The main challenge to solve isn’t scaling production or managing costs, it’s the tech. But at the same time, I see the change as an indicator that we’re closer than many think; close enough to make the finer details of the AI a priority, along with figuring out the legal issues related to bringing the vehicles to a road near you. And to me, it looks like Waymo is stepping up to the plate.

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