Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Waymo’s relationship with AutoNation. AutoNation will provide maintenance and repairs for Waymo vehicles.
ATWATER, Calif. — Waymo, Google's self-driving vehicle unit, is on the verge of achieving a breakthrough level of autonomy, its CEO said, but the lack of a clear commercialization strategy suggests it's still a long way from bringing the technology to market on a large scale.
Nearly a year after being spun off, Waymo has plenty of advancements to show in its vehicles. It gave reporters rides on a staged course with no driver at its Castle test facility here. The car completed its paces without a hitch, with an in-house sensor suite Waymo claims has an industry-topping range of 300 meters and a streamlined user interface for passengers.
In contrast, progress toward making such rides available to the public appears to be advancing more slowly.
"We're thinking about, since we've been Waymo for 10 months, how we're going to bring this technology to the world," Waymo CEO John Krafcik said at the media event. "A couple come to mind as super obvious, ride-sharing, ride-hailing; things like trucking, logistics, make a lot of sense for a company like Waymo. ... We're also considering working directly with cities to help those cities solve some really challenging last-mile transportation issues. There's also potential for using this technology in personal-use cars."
Krafcik said Waymo won't remove safety drivers from test vehicles on public roads until it's convinced they're capable and reliable, but he added that the company is "really close" to Level 4 autonomy, meaning the car needs no human supervision in defined conditions.
As big a milestone as that would be, it doesn't mean much until Waymo actually starts unleashing those vehicles onto the nation's roads.
"At some point, they're going to have to make a big decision about what they're going to do," said Mike Ramsey, a technology analyst at Gartner Research. "Having four business models means they have none."