Of all the self-driving car experimental programs, likely the most successful is Alphabet Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Waymo. Its self-driving cars have traveled well over 5 million miles. With a few exceptions of minor accidents, the company’s track record is sterling.
However, after an Uber self-driving car accident, one thing is clear. Self-driving car companies are one accident away from catastrophe.
The Uber incident is not the only one that has cast a pall over the industry. Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) said a car involved in a fatal accident was in “autopilot mode.” The driver did have a few seconds to avoid the accident but did not. That fact will not keep legions of transportation and autonomous car experts from demanding Tesla take cars off the road, or at least disable the autopilot and give owners of its cars significant warnings. No matter how the Tesla incident plays out, the self-driving industry has suffered another blow.
In an extraordinary series of decisions, some self-driving programs have been shut down, even though there is no evidence that their products are dangerous. The most notable is that the world’s second-largest car company, Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM), has suspended its program. So has one of the leading tech companies in the world, Nvidia Corp. (NASDAQ: NVDA). These companies risk falling behind in the industry, particularly against Waymo, which is rushing forward with its work.
As proof of Waymo’s ambitions, it has just set a deal with Jaguar for the British car brand to put Waymo’s self-driving technology in 20,000 I-PACE sport utility vehicles. The product will be rolled out over the next several years.
But Waymo cannot rely on a completely clean record as it moves forward. A Waymo vehicle was involved in a crash in February 2016. While there have been several other small incidents, none were blamed on Waymo technology.
Waymo’s CEO made a bold comment after the fatal Uber accident. John Krafcik said one of his cars would have avoided the Uber accident. It was an unwise statement. A Waymo car eventually will be involved in a serious accident, whether in its next 5 million miles of testing or when its cars are available to the public. At that point, Waymo will suffer a serious hit to its reputation, and perhaps a long delay in fulfilling its ambitions.