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Game Changers 2019 – Essay Series

Game Changers 2019 – Essay Series

Transforming everyday life via self-driving cars

Tekedra Mawakana, CEO, Waymo

October 26, 2018

I loved the day I turned 16. I can still remember – in the run up to that momentous occasion – my dad teaching me to drive a stick shift in a parking lot, as if mastering the release of a clutch was the superior measure of driving readiness. It was such an important milestone in my young life, and I treasured the freedom it represented.

But the truth is that I had no idea what I would come to understand about the perils of driving. In the U.S., there were more than a million collisions last year, and over 37,000 of these collisions were fatal. Almost all crashes have the same factor in common: human error.

But these numbers don’t tell us the personal and painful repercussions of the lives impacted by each collision. As a young girl, I lost two of my dear uncles in tragic car accidents. Uncle Ransom, my mom’s brother, was killed by a drunk driver in his 20s. And Uncle Perry, my dad’s brother, was killed in his 30s by a driver that ran through a stop sign, leaving his three children without a dad. This is the tragic experience and story of millions of people around the world who have lost loved ones to this fate; a fate that deserves challenging.

Throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to technology because it’s an industry predicated on problem-solving, creativity, and the ability to transform the human experience for the better.

I believe in the power of technology, while also recognizing its limits. For example, I insist upon limiting it in my personal life to strike
a meaningful balance. Ultimately, I remain hopeful in the power of technology to serve as a force for good in our lives.

I joined Waymo because it’s a self-driving technology company founded on finding a solution to reduce collisions and save lives. It was built upon that commitment.

Waymo got its start nearly a decade ago as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project. Google engineers set out to answer a unique question:
could technology be developed to solve one of society’s biggest challenges by reducing road fatalities and lives lost in traffic crashes every year? In search of an answer, it grew the team and formed a braintrust of NASA engineers, safety experts from NHTSA, and specialists
from defense and auto industries, among others. Together, they created a playbook for rigorous and comprehensive development and
testing of this technology.

Waymo is not pursuing the driver-assist technology that helps you parallel park or adjust if you over correct on a turn. In fact,
early-on, our engineers were alarmed to discover a new safety risk: the part-time human driver. In an initial study, Google found that it
was actually unsafe to ask people to go from passenger to driver in a split second. Once people trusted the technology, they stopped paying attention – one person even fell asleep. That’s when in early 2013, we decided that only full autonomy, where the technology performs all the dynamic tasks of driving, is the safest course and the only way to live up to this challenge.

And that’s why Waymo is offering a game-changer: the world’s most experienced driver.

Already, in the Greater Phoenix area, select members of the public have been using our self-driving service in a trial program to commute, run errands, or take their kids to soccer practice. Soon, even more people will be able to download the Waymo app and use self-driving technology however they please.

This is a huge leap forward in delivering on our mission and it opens the door to mobility opportunities we can only begin to imagine.
As Waymo’s Chief External Officer I think a lot about the excitement and the skepticism that comes with any major technology and
transformation. It’s only natural for people to question what’s new and how our lives could change with self-driving technology. Nevertheless, I do hope there’s one critical question that all of us can take to heart. For so long, access to a driver’s license has represented
the key to freedom, but at what cost? Despite everything that’s changed in the intervening decades since Uncle Ransom and Uncle Perry
were taken from our family, traffic casualties have gotten worse, not better. We can’t ignore that our roads are in crisis. For some reason
we’ve accepted this fate and decided that it’s somehow okay and worth the risk.

Many believe self-driving technology will be disruptive, and I agree. It’s my sincere hope that it disrupts our complacency to road perils and opens the door to a safer future, sooner rather than later.

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