AutoNation, Waymo and a 6-year courtship

Jackson: Admires Waymo approach

In the fast-moving world of technology disruption, a six-year gestation seems extreme. But in one case, that’s what it took.

On Nov. 2, AutoNation said it was forming a partnership with Waymo to service Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids. But the origin of the deal between the nation’s largest new-vehicle retailer and Google’s self-driving car affiliate stretches over the last six years.

Every 12 to 18 months during that time, AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson has visited Google X, Google’s r&d facility in Mountain View, Calif.

“I really admired the discipline and approach they were taking, especially the epiphany of realizing [that] asking a driver to supervise the autonomous system is not really a correct expectation,” Jackson told Automotive News. “Autonomous systems really need to be capable of doing the job without human supervision.”

In late 2016, Waymo was officially established as a sister company of Google with John Krafcik, a friend of Jackson, as CEO. Krafcik and Jackson discussed the sophistication of Waymo’s vehicles. The Pacificas in Waymo’s fleet are outfitted with Level 4 self-driving technology, which means they drive without human intervention in geographically designated areas.

Extending the life cycle of those Pacificas “was essential for the ultimate business,” Jackson said. “That level of investment in technology in the vehicle would require that the vehicle stay in service for hundreds of thousands of miles for the economics to make sense.”

Jackson recalled telling Krafcik, “We [have cared] for 40 million vehicles over the years here at AutoNation. We have tremendous expertise in proactive life-cycle management.” And that, because of “our scale, technical expertise and that we’re in agreement that your approach is the correct one, we should partner.”


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In addition to the Jackson-Krafcik meetings, Waymo confirmed that it hosted the entire AutoNation’s board in January to explain the tech company’s vision and strategy.

Under the deal, AutoNation initially will work with Waymo’s autonomous vehicle program in the Phoenix and Northern California markets. The agreement to provide vehicle maintenance and repairs to the fleet is not exclusive; another large dealership group theoretically could work with Waymo, too. AutoNation will use its franchise stores, AutoNation USA used-only stores and other centers to care for the vehicles.

Waymo’s mission to develop a fully autonomous vehicle was a significant draw for AutoNation, Jackson said during AutoNation’s third-quarter earnings call this month.

“They had the whole approach to autonomy where you have to under promise and over deliver rather than over promise and under deliver when it comes to autonomy and safety,” he said. “It’s almost against human nature that you have to pay strict attention and be prepared to intervene. So, they said they don’t need 99.9 percent perfection; they need 100 percent perfection.”

Without a fully autonomous system, “You’re saying, ‘Enjoy and trust this system, [but] never take your eyes off it,'” he said. But with Waymo, “If the consumer truly trusts it, then they stop paying attention.”

If consumers don’t trust the technology and pay strict attention throughout each ride, they will think, “‘I might as well drive the car myself.’ And I think this twilight zone is what the bigger industry is going to struggle with,” Jackson said.

The partnership will better position AutoNation for the future of the industry, which Jackson says will involve car-sharing, electrification and autonomous vehicles. “We think we can play a vital role in that,” he said. “And in my view, Waymo is the company I want to do that with.”