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The CEO of this driverless car company still loves to drive

John Krafcik downshifted his white Porsche 911 and whipped it around a curve on a heavily wooded mountain ro...

Posted: Nov 21, 2018 2:09 PM
Updated: Nov 21, 2018 2:09 PM

John Krafcik downshifted his white Porsche 911 and whipped it around a curve on a heavily wooded mountain road. The car's 25-year-old engine made its distinctive soft rumble behind us as he accelerated out toward the next turn. For a few moments, we stopped talking. I was enjoying the drive, but also the pleasant irony of it.

That's because Krafcik is the CEO of Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google's parent company, Alphabet.

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I first got to know Krafcik years ago when he was the head of Hyundai Motor America. Before that, he had worked at Ford. He owns a small collection of cars that includes two Porsches (neither particularly high-end), a souped up Volvo wagon and a little known bare-bones British sports car called a Caterham.

These aren't cars for showing off. These are cars for driving. Because John Krafcik loves to drive.

He makes no secret about it and he sees no conflict. This is not like the owner of a vegan restaurant grilling bison burgers on his back deck.

"You ask a room full of people: 'Do you love to drive?' and most people actually would raise their hand," he said while he drove. "But if we ask the question a slightly different way, 'Do you love commuting? Do you love driving on your commute?' I think most people would say. 'Eh, not so much.'"

That's the problem Waymo is trying solve, he said. The company doesn't want to do away with driving altogether, just the driving that's unpleasant and boring, he explained. Starting soon, Waymo will be making its driverless van rides available to the public in Arizona. From there, the roll out of the service will happen gradually.

"It's going to be a long, long time before someone takes my hands off the steering wheel of a car," he said. "That's just not something that's going to happen in the short term."

It's not only that he, personally, doesn't want to give up driving. He actually doesn't even think it's possible for Waymo or any company to entirely replace human drivers in all conceivable scenarios — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Human drivers aren't that hard to improve upon, as Krafcik pointed out.

"I've got these two eyes. That's all I've got, these two optical sensors, and it's amazing that we can drive so well just with these simple optical sensors and they're augmented a little bit with these three pieces of glass otherwise known as mirrors, and this is my full compliment of sensing technology," he said.

On top of that, a human driver's optical sensors are attached to only one brain. Each human must learn to drive on his or her own.

A Waymo driverless van has video cameras, laser and radar that can see and sense things in all directions around the vehicle continuously. And the cars learn from the experience of every other Waymo car, creating, as Krafcik puts it, "the world's most experienced driver." Each day, the Waymo driver adds another 25,000 miles to its pool of experience, more than the average person covers in two years.

But that doesn't mean the technology is perfect.

Krafcik parked his 1993 Porsche at Alice's Restaurant, about 30 minutes from Waymo's headquarters. I had suggested someplace closer, knowing he's a busy executive and probably pressed for time. But, like I said, he likes to drive.

We sat outside with a couple of sodas and a box of fries and talked about what automated cars, even with all those sensors and all that experience, won't be able to do. Engineers talk about L5, or Level 5 autonomous driving. That's as autonomous as any vehicle could possibly be. At L5, you could get into a car at any time under any weather conditions and say "Take me...." anywhere. But L5 is impossible, said Krafcik.

"That's a somewhat unreasonable expectation," he said, "and it's sort of not even necessary because we so rarely drive from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile. We just don't do that."

The highest level of automation you can buy now is Level 3, at best. That means the car can drive itself in certain conditions, such as on a multi-lane highway, but with a human driver always paying attention and ready to take over.

Waymo cars will operate in designated areas on familiar roads. Those designated areas will widen over time covering more places. But Krafcik doesn't foresee a day when the need for human drivers will be entirely obviated. But that need will diminish.

Even then, though, no one will take the steering wheel from Krafcik's hands. Not even his own company's creations.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 297581

Reported Deaths: 6808
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19829231
Hinds18966395
Harrison16899283
Rankin12851265
Jackson12754234
Lee9722163
Madison9522204
Jones8042148
Forrest7295138
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Clay179452
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Clarke170773
Calhoun158728
Smith154333
Yalobusha146036
Greene128133
Walthall125441
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Noxubee123431
Perry123335
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Benton94024
Humphreys93128
Kemper91523
Quitman77514
Franklin76520
Choctaw70317
Jefferson62927
Wilkinson62727
Sharkey49217
Issaquena1676
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 499819

Reported Deaths: 10148
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson720331403
Mobile36423741
Madison32708469
Tuscaloosa24457422
Montgomery22805523
Shelby22276219
Baldwin19935289
Lee15083161
Calhoun13963296
Morgan13801255
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DeKalb8509175
Talladega7647165
Walker6601260
Jackson6552104
Autauga634792
Blount6256128
Colbert6010121
Coffee5261104
Dale4685107
Russell408134
Franklin400879
Covington3999107
Chilton3922104
Escambia379573
Tallapoosa3637143
Clarke344553
Chambers3434111
Dallas3428142
Pike293173
Marion288996
Lawrence286287
Winston258668
Bibb246558
Marengo245357
Geneva240670
Pickens226357
Barbour213951
Hale212969
Fayette202857
Butler201666
Henry183741
Cherokee178240
Monroe166739
Randolph165441
Washington157136
Macon147845
Crenshaw146955
Clay146254
Cleburne140341
Lamar133933
Lowndes133151
Wilcox123125
Bullock117736
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Perry106427
Sumter101032
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Greene88932
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